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Latin music from
Quartet San Francisco -
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'... constantly alive to dynamic nuances and lyrical subtleties ...'

Latigo - Quartet San Francisco. © 2006 ViolinJazz Recordings

What is it about these Cohens? Minneapolis-born filmmakers Joel and Ethan are acclaimed worldwide for dry humour, sharp irony, shocking visuals and a growing string of top awards. While over on the West coast Jeremy and Joel Cohen (no apparent relation) are lead violin and cello (respectively) of the astounding, hugely invigorating, white-hot Quartet San Francisco; unchallenged exponents of driving, life-enhancing Latin rhythms.

Together with violinist Kayo Miki, violist Emily Onderdonk and John Santos on percussion they present Latigo -- sixteen irrepressible tango-style items which found a place in my top ten CDs for 2008.

For all their outward 'frisson' the QSF are constantly alive to dynamic nuances and lyrical subtleties that abound within this captivating repertoire.

The music is by outstanding masters of the genre; among them Oscar Hernández (born 1954), Armando Pontier (1917-1982), Matos Rodriguez (1897-1948), Chick Corea (born 1941), Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) and Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992). It was largely Piazzolla who brought about the modern efflorescence of nuevo tango, capturing most of the international limelight the idiom occasioned. Here however we have a far greater spread of idiomatic, inspired Latin composition.

Incidentally the title 'Latigo' refers to a tango performance technique: a quick slide or glissando of a left hand finger on a string instrument, simulating the sound of a whip. It derives in turn from a West US/Latin American word for the strap used in tightening a saddle girth. Latigo technique does not figure in all the sixteen QSF items.

Hernández' irresistible opening item Cachita catapults us headlong into a world of high-spirited euphoria: what better way to start?

Listen -- Rafael Hernandez: Cachita
(track 1, 0:10-0:57) © 2006 ViolinJazz Recordings

Next up is the tongue-in-cheek Milongueando en al Cuarenta, very stylish, very suave -- then Crowdambo, complete with syncopated rhythm, pizzicato, col legno, tremolando, portamento, a brief cadenza (à la Saint-Saëns) -- very catchy.

Armando Pontier's A los amigos introduces a note of melancholy, punctuated by high drama and some complex polyphonic writing; music such as this is unlikely to pall over repeated hearings.

Felicia places us more in the café and bar than on the ballroom floor; furthermore, one can hardly escape unexpected echoes of Hungarian/Viennese dance tradition. It's from the pen of Uruguayan pianist, composer and dance teacher Enrique Saborido (1877-1941).

And what's this I hear, could it be the 'ghost' of Scott Joplin on track 6, Felipe? Then La Cumparsita -- a beguiling example of mood swings and as near to chamber music as Latigo gets.

Listen -- Gerardo H Matos Rodriguez: La Cumparsita
(track 7, 2:28-3:42) © 2006 ViolinJazz Recordings

Bittersweet strings are heard again in Astor Piazzolla's tragic Melodia en la Menor, followed by his furiously upbeat Libertango, taking up thematic material from the preceding item.

The inexhaustible inventiveness of jazzman Chick Corea is exemplified to wonderful, swinging effect in his catchy Armando's Rhumba, though couples on a dance floor may be 'entrapped' to simply stop and listen.

An achingly lovely Carlos Gardel (1890-1935) lyrical El dia que me quieras brings more tranquil reflections while hard on Gardel's heels we're treated to a display of peerless virtuosity in Taquito militar by Mariano Mores (born 1922) -- four minutes enlivened with dazzling glissandi and a spotlight break with the 'kitchenware' of Santos.

Listen -- Mariano Mores: Taquito militar
(track 12, 2:55-3:59) © 2006 ViolinJazz Recordings

Back to the dance as Comme il Faut by Eduardo Arolas (1892-1924) and Gallo Ciego by Agustin Bardi (1884-1941) bring the listener straightforward tango rhythms, the latter highlighted with some luscious violin breaks.

The QSF's spin on Cool from Bernstein's West Side Story would surely have had Lenny cheering on the sidelines. These players pinpoint to perfection the uneasy (1950s) gang culture among New York's backstreet tenements.

To conclude we hear the unremitting, headlong drama of Piazzolla's (not for dancing) Nuevo Tango -- quite simply a tour de force in a programme of blazing ebullience, melting poetry and high drama.

If you're committed to close-knit strings and Latin rhythms then giving Latigo a miss would be doing yourself a disservice.

Wholeheartedly recommended.

This 'knockout' QSF release was awarded two nominations for the 49th Annual Grammy Awards (covering the period 15 September 2005 till 14 September 2006). Latigo was recorded 22/24 August 2005 at Skywalker Sound (Marin County, California).

Copyright © 17 November 2009 Howard Smith,
Rarotonga, Cook Islands





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