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!