Review: Album of the Week

by Chip Boaz, Latin Jazz Corner

If nothing else, life is a series of new beginnings that constantly surprises us and on a deeper level, can bring out the best in us. From our first steps to the the first time that we fall in love, each significant event marks a new chapter in our lives that helps us grow into something new. Sometimes we step into new experiences with fear or uncertainty, but there’s no stopping our evolution as people – it’s going to happen whether we like it or not. Our musical endeavors on the other hand progress completely through our choice – we can either have the momentum to try new things or we can fall back upon the comfort zone of our previous work. Both decisions hold validity within the music world and there’s room for artists that go both directions; still, there’s something admirable and exciting about artists that tackle new challenges. It’s a reflection of the way that music is tightly intertwined into their lives; as these artists progress in their lives, their music moves into uncharted territory. It’s an exciting proposal that engages the artist, their colleagues, and the audience in the thrill ride of exploring something different and regardless of the result, we all like to go along for the ride. Pianist Michelle Pollace marks a significant first with her debut release as a bandleader New Beginning, taking us on an enjoyable ride that delivers a solid and varied set of Latin Jazz.

A Strong Connection To Cuban Rhythms

Pollace shows a strong connection to Cuban rhythms on the majority of songs, performing original compositions that smartly incorporate several different styles from the island. An exuberant and catchy collection of flying notes opens "Hot House Dandelion" with an exciting edge before Pollace moves into a flowing melody over an uptempo rumba. Playing upon the rich harmonic texture of the song, Pollace weaves smart jazz influenced lines through the chord changes, building rhythmic tension in small bits. As Pollace moves out of her solo, she falls into a rhythmic vamp which opens the door for some colorful statements from both Michaelle Goerlitz and drummer Phil Hawkins. There’s a sense of calm and introspection as Pollace develops a memorable unaccompanied introduction on "New Beginning" before moving into a sparse melody over a cha cha cha groove. An uplifting momentum gives some life to the melody, an emotion that Pollace wisely taps in her improvisation with nods to the original theme on several occasions. The rhythm section responds to Pollace with a subtle songo groove, transitioning from the solo back into the melody with a strong air of hope. Pollace’s songwriting takes an interesting turn as she infuses a seven beat structure into a traditional Cuban setting on "Be Right Back." There’s never a sense of forced rhythmic structure though; throughout the melody and Pollace’s solo, the groove flows with the same type of intensity heard throughout the album. The song really comes to life when the band sets up a vamp around the seven beats for an explosive solo from Hawkins and then Pollace lays down a powerful montuno behind saxophonist Kristen Strom. Hawkins and percussionist Carlos Caro lay down a subdued rumba, giving Goerlitz a chance to riff on the introduction to "Bright Eyes" until Pollace and bassist David Belove leap into the mix. The melody arches around the groove as Pollace wraps angular lines around a powerful groove that bounces between rumba and 6/8. As Pollace moves into her solo, the rhythm section stay firmly implanted in the 6/8 feel, which Pollace pushes for rhythmic tension before leading them back to the rumba to end the piece. Pollace punches a series of descending chords over a funky groove which provides a stark contrast to the quiet and stately danzon behind the melody on "That Was Then." Despite a drastic shift, Pollace captures a traditional danzon elegance which explodes into a driving cha cha cha for the solo section. Pollace takes an inspired turn here, blending precise syncopations with bluesy embellishments and a jazz flair that sets fire to her solo with an understated intensity. Displaying a clear connection and knowledge of Cuban music, Pollace grabs this music with a passion, wrapping it into her compositions with creative energy.

Smart Arrangements Of Two Standards

The pianist extends her love of Cuban styles to some smart arrangements of two standards from very different sources. Pollace gracefully places rich open chords over a driving cha cha cha groove on "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" before thoughtfully interpreting the well known melody in a way that smartly balances our familiarity with a unique spin. The pianist dances through the chord changes with improvised melodies that overflow with with energy and forward motion before twisting the bridge melody into a rhythmic phrasing. The steady groove continues as Pollace slams out rhythmic breaks, setting up a framework for some impressive percussion work from Goerlitz on congas and Caro on timbales. Pollace and her group sparkle with grace and style while making an elegant nod to tradition on their arrangement of Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona’s "La Comparsa." Both Pollace and Strom takes turns with pieces of the melody, embellishing the classic lines with a subtle improvised flair that really makes the recording come alive. As the group reaches the end of the melody, Pollace sends the rhythm section into high gear with a powerful montuno that serves as an inspiring foundation for a lively solo from Strom. While these two songs may come from quite different ends of the musical spectrum, Pollace’s defined musical vision pushes them into an exciting direction.

Songs Based In Brazilian Rhythms

Pollace shows a broader understanding of Latin Jazz with a few songs based in Brazilian rhythms. A playful call and response between piano and percussion opens "Forró" with a bright and lively feeling that leads into a rhythmic melody that intertwines tightly into the Brazilian rhythms. The group’s performance benefits from a well constructed arrangement that delicately walks the line between improvised freedom and pre-conceived ideas. As Pollace moves into her solo, she draw upon that balance, pushing the improvised sections with a fierce rhythmic tension that inspires a rousing interaction from the rhythm section. Understated band hits make way for a stuttering rhythmic introduction on "Onds do Mar," giving way to a laid back melody that slyly intertwines new ideas with pieces of the introduction. The rhythm section maintains a funky undertone to the Brazilian foundation at every turn, inspiring running flights of notes interspersed with lyrical melodies and the slightest bit of tension in Pollace’s solo. The band breakdowns to a drum groove from Hawkins, overflowing with funky goodness that takes the group calmly back through the melody. The dark and rich tone of Pollace’s Fender Rhodes sets a calmly reflective tone on her unaccompanied introduction to "First Flight" before the group falls into a Brazilian groove behind an understated melody. Pollace draws upon the funky rhythmic articulation of her instrument to emphasis the rhythm throughout her solo while finding jazz tinges at every turn. The song once again walks the line between clever arrangement and improvised elements as Pollace leaves breaks in her statement for commentary from the cuica and unison lines with Belove. Despite a different source of rhythmic momentum, Pollace applies her consistent class and style to these pieces.

An Inspired And Professional Set Of Latin Jazz

Pollace marks the next chapter in her musical life with power, grace, and style on New Beginning, delivering an inspired and professional set of Latin Jazz. There’s a defined sense of structure in Pollace’s work as a composer, performer, and bandleader that makes her music both accessible and exciting. Her compositions capture rich harmonic textures while making a clear connection to authentic rhythms from Cuba and Brazil. As a pianist, Pollace reflects a focused study of jazz, Cuban, and Brazilian approaches to arrangement, improvisation, and accompaniment. From an overall perspective, Pollace’s music overflows with a strong artistic command, an authentic connection to the source material, and an infectious sense of cool. Producer Rebeca Mauleón has definitely lent her approach to the recording, helping shape the recording with West Coast style and finesse. The rock solid rhythm section of Belove, Hawkins, Goerlitz, and Caro provide a foundation that captures the true essence of the styles, but they do it in a way that reinforces Pollace’s ideas and adds a lively momentum to her music. From every angle, there’s a feeling of support and commitment to a product that shines with quality and integrity. Pollace’s first outing as a bandleader delivers extremely satisfying results on New Beginning, a tribute to her willingness to evolve as musician that leaves us with hope and excitement for her next steps.

READ original review here.
Back to more articles

Sign up for Michelle's Newsletter, and download TWO FREE SONGS!

* indicates required

Songs from Michelle's latest CD, "New Beginning." Offer valid for a limited time.

Michelle Pollace - New
                                    Beginning CD cover