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Venezuelan Virtuosos at Bard

Music Review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sat Apr 20th, 2019

From left: Sullivan Fortner, Linda Briceño, Jorge Glem, Etienne Charles, Endea Owens, Daniel Prim

The Catskill Jazz Factory offered a program entitled The Vibes of Venezuela last Friday night at Bard’s LUMA Theater. To a capacity crowd a lineup of  Etienne Charles (trumpet and box), Linda Briceño (trumpet and vocalist), Jorge Glem (cuatro), Endea Owens (bass), Sullivan Fortner (piano) and Daniel Prim (drums and castanets). Piers Playfair, founder of the Catskill Jazz Factory, introduced the players with enthusiasm tempered by emotional sobriety about the situation in Venezuela today. The country currently suffers from anarchic breakdown. Fifty-six years ago, Venezuela possessed an identical credit rating to the United States. Playfair announced that any contributions to Cuatro, (a charity started by four Venezuelan ladies) by the audience would be matched by the Catskill Jazz Factory (up to $2,500).  

“Juliana” by Lionel Belasco (1881-June 24, 1967) was their opener. Belasco was born in either Trinidad or Venezuela (they are only separated by seven miles), and his first recordings were in Trinidad, yet he went on to become an anonymous Tin Pan Alley success in America.  (There are theater and nightclubs in the United States named after Belasco.)

The concept of the program was to move from the roots of this music and show how it has developed up until the present while tracing African, Native South American, and European influences on the modern music of Venezuela

“Juliana” is a peculiar, popular waltz; here arranged for two trumpets rather than the traditional clarinet. This arrangement provided more piano showcasing, while the trumpets delivered exciting upfront flair as they played with a sensitive softness one doesn’t usually associate with trumpets. While the waltz rhythm surges in double-time, there is an unusual modulating frisson that supplies a charming frisson. The result was an unusual blend of South American joy with a hopped-up European structure.

“El Catire” (The Blond), written by Aldemaro Romero and arranged by Gustavo Carucci and performed by Linda Briceño, exposed a Brazilian jauntiness, possibly about the arrest of a noted young criminal. “Shemita” (Solitude) by Linda Briceño, the first woman to receive a Grammy Award as Producer for a Latin American album (2018), performed powerfully on trumpet: Briceño offered a meditation in which the space between notes was almost as import as the tempo. The dynamic contrasts in the trumpet line was remarkable. “Bily” offered calypso, a style endemic to Trinidad where Charles hails from.

In “Roses of Caracas,” another Belasco tune, the cuatro (where the upper string is one octave lower than the ukulele) and upright bass replaced the usual violin line, which made this arrangement rather spectacular as Jorge Glem and Endea Owens played furiously. The unity of the ensemble peaked and solidified. “El Cumanes,” a joropo, the national dance music of Venezuela, somewhat resembling a fandango from which it descends, permitted the trumpets of Linda Briceño and Etienne Charles to alternate with smooth precision like an expert tag-team.

In “Todo Mola” by Gonzalo Graua, a popular dance merengue tune through-out South America, everyone was full tilt here: Fortner on piano, Prim on drums with both trumpets riffing in 1/8 notes. “Nostalgia andina” (Andean nostalgia) by Cesar Prato once more featured a prominent role for cuatro—more picking than strumming in this trio trio with Charles, Glem, and Prim. “Percussion duo” pitted Prim and Charles against each other in improvised modality where spontaneity took a front seat. In “Joropo Duet” Glem’s hands were an astonishing blur and Endea, a former student of trumpeter Etienne Charles, glowed with ardor and sound. (Glem has recorded over 20 albums).

“Old Rugged Cross,” a hymn by George Bennett, was a Good Friday memorial for Roberto, a recently deceased noted Venezuelan cuatro player. Fortner, who is from New Orleans, played high and low on electric keyboard organ with deep emotion.

“All day today,” another calypso, was an exuberant, rollicking song for which audience members joined in with clapping, and even singing the simple refrain as Briceño sang lyrics with robust voice. With the band at full-tilt and the audience singing full-throat with delight, the theater was amiably rocked.

A short encore, "El Cumanes” by Morocho Fuentes, put some extra sugar on the concert. What was apparent was that the dynamic base of Venezuelan music resided in its underlying base of African dance rhythms, despite the overlaying mixtures of European and South American influences. Venezuelan jazz remains rooted in dance rhythms.