Pushing the South American Envelope

United StatesUnited States Piazzolla, Schissi, Saluzzi, Zenón, Villa-Lobos, Pascoal, Otero: Spektral Quartet, Julien Labro (accordion), Fernando Otero (piano), SubCulture, New York City, 2.10.2014 (BH)

Astor Piazzolla: Fear
Diego Schissi: Liquido 5
Dino Saluzzi: Minguito
Miguel Zenón: El Club de la Serpiente
Heitor Villa-Lobos: “Melodia Sentimental” (from A Floresta do Amazonas)
Hermeto Pascoal: Suite Norte, Sul, Leste, Oeste
Diego Schissi: Astor De Pibe
Fernando Otero: De Ahora En Mas
Heitor Villa-Lobos: “Veleiros” (from A Floresta do Amazonas)
Astor Piazzolla: Milonga Loca

Inexplicably making their New York debut—only because this cracking, Chicago-based ensemble has been in existence since 2010—the Spektral Quartet packed SubCulture for a concert celebrating its newest recording, From This Point Forward (on Azica Records). Adding to the evening’s many delights was accordionist Julien Labro (who also arranged the works on the album). But like many virtuosos, Labro also plays related instruments: the bandoneón and the accordina—the latter similar to a melodica, but with buttons replacing the keyboard.

Born in France, Labro has collaborated with some of jazz’s most esteemed names, including Cassandra Wilson, Miguel Zenón, and Larry Coryell. Working with the Spektral Quartet was born of the music of Astor Piazzolla, who has often written for strings and bandoneón, a relative of the accordion used in South America and crucial to the tango. Labro and these classically-trained string players want to expand the repertoire for this instrumentation, and this expertly paced, thrillingly played concert demonstrated just how far they have come.

What distinguished this effort from others in the “classical-plus-whatever” genre is the Spektral musicians’ technical expertise. Trained at institutions as diverse as the Paris Conservatoire, University of Southern California and Northwestern University, they have tackled everything from Haydn to Brian Ferneyhough to Lee Hyla, as well as some of today’s most interesting younger composers like Hans Thomalla and Marcos Balter.

Though there weren’t any ebbs, some choices stood out. Originally from Puerto Rico, saxophonist Miguel Zenón is a 2008 MacArthur Fellow, and El Club de la Serpiente is a sizzling testament to his compositional talent. Fernando Otero, an Argentine jazz pianist currently living in Brooklyn, came onstage to join the ensemble for his exuberant De Ahora En Mas. Throughout the evening, the group wove in anecdotes—often amusing—about the composers, the pieces, and the process of learning them.

Late in the concert, after his bandoneón suffered a small accident, Labro wistfully appealed to the audience, asking if there were a repairman in the house. When no one stepped forward, he said he would “try” to do Heitor Villa-Lobos’s “Veleiros” (from A Floresta do Amazonas) and the wild syncopations of Astor Piazzolla’s Milonga Loca—on the accordion instead. Not that the instruments are dissimilar, but his playing was still mightily impressive. Watching Labro translate—on the spot—the musical line from one instrument to another, as the quartet gracefully followed his lead, made the evening’s close even more riveting. Piazzolla’s punchy Escualo made a feverish encore.

Bruce Hodges

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