Album Review: Black Bambi – Black Bambi

Black Bambi

photo courtesy of Head First Entertainment

Album Review of Black Bambi: Black Bambi (20th Century Music)

There’s so much good, throwback-styled, ’80s melodic hard rock out there these days, and this self-titled disc from Black Bambi ranks among the best of this past year’s batch. Or, at least, it would. But it was recorded nearly 30 years ago, scheduled for a 1990 release before all-too-common record-company issues landed it on the sideline. Punch, pop, big vocals, power guitars, and monster hooks. It’s a fun, well-crafted adrenaline rush from a cadre of talented compadres. I don’t typically review re-issues – though others who write for me sometimes choose to – but as with every rule, this one is made to be broken, and is it really a reissue if it was never released in the first place? I’d’ve probably given this release five stars if I had reviewed it back in 1990, when I was wordsmithing for hard rock and heavy metal magazine Tough Tracks. (Our star rankings went up to five, didn’t they, Lisa?) This many years later, I’m equally impressed, and with the resurgence in recordings of melodic hard rock (also referred to by the term “hair metal,” which I dismiss because it doesn’t describe the music) from bands and musicians active in its heyday as well as young, new artists, this seems like an ideal time to release – and to review – Black Bambi’s newly released old recording. (Technically, this album was also released in 2001, so this really a second release, but I missed the 2001 version, so it’s new to me and, in all probability, to you, too.)

Black Bambi - Black Bambi

image courtesy of Head First Entertainment

I’d place the band on the heaviness scale around where Tyketto was back in that band’s heyday but not as heavy as Tyketto is now or as L.A. Guns typically is. Perhaps a bit crunchier than bands like Sweet F.A. were back in the early ’90s, though.

“Mary’s Birthday” kicks things off strong, showing the guitars and drums, riffing a little, then delivering in memorably catchy melodic hard rock fashion, plowing somewhat straight ahead but with a little Extreme-reminiscent funk and lightly-instrumented bridges. This is a great selection for a first track, kicking the album off strong.

It’s followed by another of my favorite tracks, “In the Meantime,” pulsing guitars and drums joined by a thin Skid Row-esque ’80s vocal line as the song plods forcefully forward, providing ample contrasting backdrop to the song’s harmonious bridges and guitar solo noodling.

“Crucified” adds a little blues wail to the mix, spicing things up without obscuring the song’s ’80s hair metal roots. “Seven Miles to Rome” stands out for its heavy, plodding power; it’s a force of nature that grows on the listener more with each playing, sparsely-instrumented – almost the exact opposite of wall-of-sound – emphasizing the tune’s heavy axework.

Black Bambi

photo courtesy of Head First Entertainment

“Down” is a pulsing rocker that blends a street cred-building heaviness with Ratt-like vocals and a hypnotically catchy repeating rhythm; “The Celebration” follows that with a little funky vibe driving its hooky hard rock rhythm and wails.

My favorite song on the disc is probably “99 1/2,” whose verses recalled Quiet Riot’s “Metal Health” a bit the first few times I listened to it, but by now I have trouble hearing anything in it but Black Bambi.

In all, this is a terrific throwback disc. It’s a shame it wasn’t released when it was recorded – an all-too-frequent tale of music careers getting delayed and derailed by record label politics – but for those of us who loved that musical era, Black Bambi’s eponymous album is a welcome gift, a new discovery via an unearthed time capsule.

Album Review: The Black Butterflies – Luisa

The Black Butterflies

photo by Vladimir Radojicic; photo courtesy of Mercedes Figueras

by Eric Harabadian, Contributing Blogger

Album Review of The Black Butterflies featuring Gato Barbieri: Luisa

Mercedes Figueras is an Argentinean saxophonist who has released a series of independent albums as leader of New York-based jazz outfit The Black Butterflies. Much of their music is of a contemporary post-bop and Afro-Cuban nature, rich with lush percussion and rhythmic accents. On their latest installment, this was an exceptionally momentous release because it documented the last recorded work by the late legendary tenor sax great Gato Barbieri.

The Black Butterflies - Luisa

album cover art by Ima Montoya; image courtesy of Mercedes Figueras

The Black Butterflies consist of Figueras on soprano, alto, tenor sax and vocals; Tony Larokko on soprano and tenor sax and percussion; Fred Berryhill on djembe and percussion; Bopa “King” Carre on bongos and percussion; Nick Gianni on upright bass and flute; Rick Bottari, piano; Kenny Wollesen on drums; and Karl Berger on vibraphone and melodica.

The album begins with a mash-up of the traditional black folk song “Hambone” — with vocals by Larokko that flow nicely with the introductory rhythms — leading into the Astor Piazzolla piece “Adios Nonino.” This is a nice and easy samba that features Figueras playing a rather whimsical and snaky kind of melody, with its overarching intervals and valiant sonic leaps. Berge adds some really nice touches here on vibes.

The Black Butterflies

photo by Vladimir Radojicic; photo courtesy of Mercedes Figueras

Figueras’ original “Gato’s Hat” is a sweet dedication to the Latin saxman himself. It’s kind of a simple-sounding folk melody that the leader uses as a vehicle to engage Barbieri in a friendly horn duel. It’s a light and spirited piece uplifted by animated percussion that weaves in and out.

Title track “Luisa” is a lullaby between mother and daughter. Figueras’ words are poetic as she offers advice to her young daughter via words of wisdom. She sings these lyrics in whispery and eerily hushed tones that are gentle and comforting. The music shifts accordingly from ethereal and ambient to more of a 4/4 swing feel. It’s a nice conceptual piece that utilizes, in particular, the strengths of the bass and drums.

The Black Butterflies

photo by Vladimir Radojicic; photo courtesy of Mercedes Figueras

Another Figueras original, “Brother Nacho, Sister Lola,” is based on a lean and simple samba vamp featuring dense percussion and saxophonic cross-talk between Barbieri and the leader. Their playing is intense only to be offset by the steady hand of Berger on accompaniment and solos.

The mood shifts between major and minor modes on Ramon Sixto Rios’ “Merceditas.” Again, Barbieri comes to the fore here with some shimmering tenor work supported by Berger on melodica.

McCoy Tyner’s “Love Samba” fits in nicely with the Latin-tinged program here and shines a spotlight on Larokko’s soprano sax exchanges with Figueras’ horns. The set up is tight and effective, with Berger on the first vibes solo, Bottari mimicking Tyner’s percussive comping style to a tee, and then the horns intersecting with harmony and dissonance in a somewhat avant garde manner. It’s a John Coltrane meets Pharaoh Sanders sounding kind of affair and is a real highlight of the album.

The Black Butterflies

photo by Vladimir Radojicic; photo courtesy of Mercedes Figueras

The Black Butterflies conclude with the Carlos Gardel/Alfredo Le Pera-penned “Por Una Cabeza” as the group introduces a tango to the mix. Figueras displays some of her Barbieri tendencies as she emphasizes a full-toned gruffness in her sound that brings a fiery passion to the overall track. The leader rides the waves of emotion on this one as the dynamics and tempo shift in poetic and danceable formation.

This 2015 recording, released in 2017, is not only significant for being the last recorded project Barbieri did, but it reconnected him with his former bandmate from the mid-‘60s era Don Cherry Quartet, Karl Berger. It appears to have been an emotional and fulfilling experience for them all and, hopefully, for you the listener. Enjoy!

Album Review: Hristo Vitchev Quartet – Of Light and Shadows

Hristo Vitchev

photo courtesy of Hristo Vitchev

by Eric Harabadian, Contributing Blogger

Album Review of Hristo Vitchev Quartet: Of Light and Shadows (First Orbit Sounds Music)

Hristo Vitchev is a Bulgarian-born and San Francisco-based contemporary jazz guitarist with a series of albums out on indie label First Orbit Sounds. His latest release, Of Light and Shadows, continues a string of progressive impressionistic albums he’s recorded with his steady unit of Jasnam Daya Singh on piano, Dan Robbins on bass and Mike Shannon on drums. It may be a cliché to say that an artist’s latest release is their best, but it takes a while to truly gel and operate on all cylinders as a group. And, with this latest endeavor, that is indeed the case.

The cover art for this latest album — as with most of Vitchev’s previous recordings — was painted by the leader himself. It is certainly an abstract blend of light and dark colors, hues, brushstrokes and shades, that tie perfectly with the album title.

Hristo Vitchev Quartet - Of Light and Shadows

image courtesy of Hristo Vitchev

“Of Light and Shadows” is the first track that sets the pace for the album. And, like the cover, is multi-tiered and complex. The tune seems to be broken down in sections, with a light samba-like feel supporting the main theme. The mid-section establishes itself as a vehicle for the drums and piano to step out. The piece is very open and has a kind of baroque ECM label element to it. Some of Pat Metheny or John Abercrombie’s early work comes to mind.

“The Shortest Wavelength” follows with a thoughtful piano intro by Singh that leads into something, I believe, in 7. As with the ebb and flow of a traditional waveform, the piece slowly builds in intensity and subsides as drummer Shannon and bassist Robbins ride the tide.

“Selective Absorption” features a soft and lilting melody that wafts above the rhythmic fray. The dialogue and transitions between Vitchev and Singh are extremely focused and smooth. The head of the tune is as tuneful as it is challenging and Shannon’s rubato figures at the end provide excitement and flair.

After the somewhat up tempo arc of the previous tune they take it down a bit for kind of a romantic piece called “At Your Side.” There are some lovely peaks and valleys here where Vitchev demonstrates his strengths as both composer and soloist. Shannon’s artful brush work in tandem with Robbin’s warm and resonant bass is transcendent.

Hristo Vitchev Quartet

photo courtesy of Hristo Vitchev

“Prelude to Prismic Dance” is a tasteful intro piece featuring Singh’s graceful and lush solo piano. His use of triads and trills really builds things up and leads into “Prismic Dance.” Vitchev’s glossy chord textures and seemingly effortless solos glide nicely over odd time signatures and well-orchestrated dynamics.

The colorfully titled “Pentachromatic Butterflies” is a melodic piece that blends with a slightly dissonant or minor edge. It is very modal and open, with some fluid solos from Robbins. Also, this tune features a nice use of time and space. Vitchev isn’t really about chops as much as giving his solos a chance to breathe and develop with each pass.

The other overt ballad here is “ A Portrait of a Love Forgotten.” This is a pensive and somewhat somber tune that is sweetly lyrical and a nice showcase for the band. Vitchev plays a very linear, yet abstract melody, with a tone and approach that recalls greats like Lee Ritenour, Steve Khan or George Benson. Singh’s Bill Evans-like piano and Shannon’s Joe Morello-styled brush work make this one a highlight.

The album concludes with the noir-ish coined “Partial Darkness.” There is a lot going on here rhythmically. The drums kick things off in a very vibrant and flashy manner. Singh shifts into some dense and reflective passages as Vitchev holds the weight of the melody with a somewhat funky repetitive figure. There is a nice breakdown of the drums and bass in the middle and the structure offers the listener some interesting twists and turns.

The Hristo Vitchev Quartet is truly setting the scene for cutting edge jazz on a global scale. Pick up this current snapshot of their visionary music and you will not be disappointed.

Live Performances

The “Itinerary” page of Hristo’s website lists three upcoming performances.  Tonight, Saturday, February 3rd, as part of the Pat Bianchi Trio (Pat Bianchi, Hristo Vitchev, Sanah Kadoura), Hristo plays Cafe Stritch in San Jose, CA. On Wednesday, February 7th, the Hristo Vitchev 3 (Hristo, Pat Bianchi, and Sanah Kadoura) perform at Cafe Pink House in Saratoga, CA. And on Thursday, February 22nd, Hristo is back at Cafe Stritch as part of the SJZ Collective (Brian Ho, Oscar Pangilinan, Saúl Sierra, Wally Schnalle, John Worley, Jr., and Hristo) for “SJZ Collective Reimagines Monk.” Be sure to check Hristo’s website for future gigs as they’re added.