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TRPTK: Breaking Genre Walls

Mark Werlin By

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Guitarist-composer-singer Rafael Fraga was born in Lisbon, and the plaintive sound of Portuguese music is embedded in his DNA. Following studies in classical composition, degrees at the Escola Superior de Música de Lisboa and the Conservatorium van Amsterdam, he established a performing career in the Netherlands.

The Rafael Fraga Quartet recorded Trova Caminhada at MCO Studio 2 in Hilversum, the Netherlands, under the supervision of engineer Brendon Heinst. The album's blend of Portuguese folk, bossa nova and jazz elements evoke the work of Brazilian singer-guitarist Milton Nascimento; listening to Fraga's wordless vocal and Aki Spadaro's sympathetic piano accompaniment towards the end of "Está na Hora de Voltar," one can detect echoes of Nascimento's unmistakable falsetto, yet the effect is more of inspiration than imitation. Fraga's Portuguese guitar, built by luthier António Martins, produces tone colors in the bright end of the sound spectrum. He plays skillfully and without the kind of self-indulgent technical flourishes that would detract from the ensemble presentation.

The lyrics to Trova Caminhada are published in the accompanying booklet, though only in the original Portuguese. The imperfect tool of Google Translate cannot do justice to Fraga's writing, but the translations suggest that he is looking unflinchingly at the silences and wounds which inevitably occur at the most intimate levels of relationships. Even without knowing the exact meaning of the words, you can detect the weariness and the hint of hopefulness in Fraga's voice. This is late-night music of accomplished artistry.

The musicians in the Rafael Fraga Quartet add their respective national voices and musical pedigrees into the mix. Pianist Aki Spadaro, originally from Palermo, Sicily, received a degree in Jazz Piano at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam. He regularly performs, composes for films, and teaches in the Netherlands. Australian-born percussionist Efraim Schulz-Wackerbarth is another beneficiary of the jazz pedagogy in Dutch conservatories. His master's degree research on the music of the great drum innovator Tony Williams connects him to the progressive stream of American jazz. Anchored by bassist Marko Bonarius, the ensemble convey a distinctly jazz style that complements Rafael Fraga's neo-traditional songwriting. There is a seamless, seductive quality to this recording, enhanced by Brendon Heinst's expert engineering, that draws the listener in, for a closer musical—and deeper emotional—encounter.

Personnel: Rafael Fraga, vocals, guitar, Portuguese guitar; Aki Spadaro, piano, keys; Efraim Schulz-Wackerbarth, drums and percussion; Marko Bonarius, double bass; Aili Deiwiks, violin; Maya Fridman, cello

Martin van Hees: Remgewogen

Jazz has been in dialogue with other musical dialects throughout its roughly 100-year history, starting with its origins in the polyglot city of New Orleans, at the time, home to African-Americans, Cubans, Central and South Americans, French-and Italian-Americans. Over the decades, as the music spread geographically and evolved technically, jazz composition and improvisation increasingly drew on the harmonic material of then-contemporary classical music.

At the beginning of the 1960s, the revolutionary performances of pianist Cecil Taylor broke down the false dichotomy between jazz (low, popular) vs. classical (high, art) music. Taylor threw the whole question open to listeners, critics and his fellow musicians, and if relatively few American jazz players could follow where Taylor led, others opened their ears and turned their pens to the spectrum of musical styles and traditions from Europe to Africa, to Latin America and Asia. During a concert/master class given in the last year of his long life, Randy Weston (who lectured about the line of musical development beginning in Africa and extending through Moorish Spain into Europe) was asked by an audience member if there were any classical pianists who had influenced him. Weston answered: no; but that during the time he was learning by example from his mentor Thelonious Monk, he was also listening to Bach, to Debussy and Alban Berg, especially the Violin Concerto. He emphasized the point: 'all of us' listened to and were inspired by that music.

In many of the works by Dutch composers that guitarist Martin van Hees selected for his TRPTK recital recording Remgewogen, jazz-attuned listeners will recognize chords, melodic intervals and dynamic shadings that are part of the vocabulary of contemporary jazz and new improvisational music. In the opening sections of composer Roderik de Man's "Dulcamara," I heard passages that reminded me, almost involuntarily, of jazz ranging across five decades from Wayne Shorter's "Nefertiti" to "Imprint Double" from Sylvie Courvoisier's brilliant album D'Agala.

In the accompanying booklet for Remgewogen Van Hees describes how the album grew out of encounters with musicians of his own age cohort, Jan-Peter de Graaff and Christiaan Richter , and conversations with an earlier generation, including the well-known composer Louis Andriessen. Preparing the music for the album, van Hees took the opportunity

...to interview the composers personally, and additionally ask them intriguing questions; related to the contemporary music scene, the different notations used, and their intentions and thoughts behind their works.

In a sense, the recording is more than a recital; it is a presentation of the soloist's process, his efforts to broaden his own, and the listener's, musical experience.

The sudden silences, half-whispered pianissimo passages, and wide-leap intervals in Louis Andriessen's "Triplum" are drawn into a coherent presentation through van Hees' masterful technique and sensitivity to the composer's intentions. "Variations on a Quote by Debussy," a new work by Aart Strootman, a composer of the generation succeeding Andriessen, draws on the inspiration of early-twentieth century French modernism without resorting to pastiche or cliché. It's refreshing to hear a new work that is so approachable, an entryway to the album as a whole.

The two pieces on the album written by guitarist van Hees display the performer's skill at conveying those characteristics that are unique to the instrument, the tangible pull of fingers at the strings, the emotive warmth of the wood. "Ikariotikoyunbabarrange" builds variations on a minor key hymn-like theme towards a dramatic climax. It would be a natural encore for live performances. The meditative "Orewoet" shows a more introspective side of this talented young composer.

Jan-Peter de Graaff's "All that Changes" and Christiaan Richter's "Remgewogen," with their bold chromaticism, restless changes of mood and dramatic percussive effects, bring the album not so much to a close, as to an open question: Where does music come from, and where is it going?
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