by Ken Avis
Monday, Nov. 7, 2011
Any musician will tell you that naming a band is a challenge. But D.C.-based Bossalingo suffers from a slightly different predicament: Having settled years ago on a pithy moniker, the group’s ever-expanding repertoire may have now outgrown it.
Bossalingo began in the mid-1990s, playing the classic songs of Brazilian composers such as Antonio Carlos Jobim and Luiz Bonfá and delighting audiences with regular gigs at U Street’s Chi Cha Lounge. But after a five-year layoff, things seem to have changed. At the Nov. 7 release show for their new CD, Steps Beyond, the group took listeners at Blues Alley on a Pan-American tour of Latin rhythms that went well beyond the boundaries of its Brazil-focused name.
Bossalingo’s core musicians were augmented at this performance by New York-based pianist Arturo O’Farrill, founder and director of the Grammy Award-winning Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra. The driving rhythms of this modern master’s playing complemented the arrangements, adding a perceptible groove to the music.
Opening the set with an original composition, “The Cat’s on Sugar Mountain,” bandleader, composer and guitarist Michael Joseph Harris’s playing reflected Latin, jazz, folk and rock influences. Throughout the night, his nylon-string acoustic guitar work would prove inventive and melodic, and his guitar solo on the opener was tinged with blues. Later, on “Honest Journey,” his solo included passages reminiscent of both George Benson and John McLaughlin – unexpected contrasts packed into a single tune.
Bossalingo, “Respira Profundo” (from Steps Beyond)
The band’s original rhythm section, which played only the first half of the set, provided a cohesive foundation. Bassist Eric Leifert provided fluidity and direction to the arrangements, while leaving space for drummer Tom Barrick’s ornamentation. With percussionist Alfredo Mojica adding accents on a varied assemblage of instruments, the band was quick to pick up on Arturo’s cues and surf the grooves he often initiated, most noticeably on a tango-esque rendition of John Lewis’s “Django.”
Bossalingo’s “Across the Universe” remained faithful to the melancholic John Lennon melody before broadening into a gospel-funk jam. Michael switched to steel-string acoustic for this song; it’s an instrument rarely seen at Blues Alley, but in the context of a Beatles song, why not? If only Billy Preston could have been there to add a swirling Hammond at the end.
The hypnotic ballad “Toninio Saves the Rain” and “Django” closed the first half of the set before the new rhythm section – brothers Alejandro and Leonardo Lucini of the locally based band Origem – brought a fresh emphasis. Leonardo manned the bass, while Alejandro saddled up behind the drum kit.
The brothers, along with Alfredo on percussion, exuded pure joy as they jumped on the moving train provided by O’Farrill’s Cuban themes in “Respira Profundo.” The energy continued in the unlikely “Pure Imagination” – yes, that song from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The song moved from a flamenco feel into a bossa beat, until O’Farrill injected his unmistakable Cuban rhythm with high-energy piano.
Clifford Brown’s “Joyspring” was a fitting finale: an unrestrained tour-de-force and an enticing taste of what the band has to offer in the future, particularly as they play more shows together and iron out occasional uncertainties.
A good proportion of the sizable audience consisted of old fans from the group’s previous tenure. Bossalingo met their expectations, delivering the goods with virtuosity, lyricism and energy. Blues Alley is to be congratulated for opening its stage to local musicians and, once again, it was made clear that D.C.-area players can bring out an audience and meet the performance standards of this national jazz club.