I have known Hendrik Meurkens long before he has known me. I had a few of his records when I was coordinating my own radio show, Terra Brasilis, and the Jazz Oasis program at WERS in Boston while attending my Master’s Program in Visual and Media Arts at Emerson College. At the time, I had this notion that I was partaking in the vision of a few amazing New York based musicians who were developing forward and giving light to the sonic vision which I aspired to in my own musical endeavors. Being Brazilian but having studied in an international school in Brasília as of very young, and having lived in the US for many years has made me somewhat bicultural, especially when it comes to music and the arts. At that moment in time, I was researching the Samba Jazz movement which had begun in the mid 1950‘s in Brazil and which is the lesser-known sibling of the popular Bossa Nova.
Amongst these great New York based artists, Dr. Meurkens, as I like to call him, stood out as a prolific voice in two of the not so common instruments in the jazz palette which happen to be favorites of mine: the harmonica and the vibraphone. Listening to his albums was always amazing. His choices in musicians and in repertoire, a mixture of originals and standards, made for a familiar yet fresh experience.
Having worked with Dr. Meurkens for more than just a few times in different contexts, I believe that he has found in this group of musicians with whom he has recorded Live at Bird’s Eye a true band sound, one which any bandleader searches for. It is not only perfect for a live record date, but a cohesive sounding ensemble which follows the trajectory which Meurkens has traced through his previous recordings, and whose adventurous performances here will delight the Brazilian/ Jazz music lover.
Adriano Santos on drums, from São Paulo, Brazil, has the right touch and feel to bring forth the ensemble’s Brazilian flavor. A solid groove master, he drives every track of the album with precision and flair where it is needed and provides the right colors on the well-chosen ballads.
Bassist Gustavo Amarante, from Belo Horizonte, Brazil, is not only a great pairing to Adriano’s sound but also truly the harmonic and rhythmic connector between the two main soloists. Precise bottom support in both intense and more delicate moments along with elegant note choices in his bass lines cause for a velvet magic carpet ride throughout.
From St. Petersburg, Russia, pianist Misha Tsiganov adds the fiery element we expect from a well-rounded soloist when needed, and he beautifully compliments on the more quiet and melodic moments of the album. His proficiency within the Brazilian styles performed here is astonishing and gives the live recording yet another hybrid dimension.
As for the Doctor, here is an articulate multi-instrumentalist and jazz improviser who knows well when to choose which of his main instruments to match with any given selection from this involving and well-selected repertoire.
The album kicks off with a groovy straight Samba version of Amazonas, where the Doctor plays the theme and takes an ever-ascending first solo on the vibraphone. Tsiganov takes over with equal escalating energy. A clever surprise is the modulation of the last A of the tune.
The ensemble shifts gears to one of my favorite tracks here, Brighetti’s and Martino’s ballad Estate. A colorful and sparse vamp by the rhythm section serve as the intro to the Doctor’s exquisite interpretation of the melody, this time on his gaitinha (‘little harmonica’ in Portuguese). He then takes a passionate solo before an equally expressive chorus from Tsiganov. Santos and Amarante fluctuate beautifully between an open and tight Bossa along with the intensity in which each soloist takes the song forward. The Doctor takes the theme out, emulating the end of a breezy summer day.
The next track is the first Meurkens original of the album. Sambatropolis starts with a partido-alto Samba intro. Here we go back to the vibraphone with the piano doubling parts of the melody. Again, full support from the rhythm section as the Doctor and Tsiganov take fiery solos. During the head out Tsiganov complements the thematic rhythmic melody with interwoven phrases.
Dindi, one of Jobim’s pearls, is introduced by the piano. The overall initial mood is that of a Jazz ballad. Meurkens, back on his ‘gaitinha’, plays the theme with heartfelt class. Tsiganov then takes the first solo over the AA sections. When the Doctor comes in for his solo over B and the last A, the rhythm section swimmingly shifts to a Bossa creating an apex to this version. The head out is presented by the harmonica from the bridge on in an usual yet clever jazz ballad form shift.
The Hendrik Meurkens Quartet - from left : Hendrik Meurkens, Misha Tsiganov, Gustavo Amarante, Adriano Santos
The next track is a fun one: Lingua de Mosquito is one of the many Choros that Meurkens has been writing as of late. This older and perhaps one of the first truly Brazilian musical styles, more prominently from the turn of the last century, has gained a serious revival in recent years in Brazil. Here it gains an even newer take with a jazzier twist. Following one of the more prominent Choro forms, and with Santos on the style’s characteristic pandeiro drum, this composition has an authentic esthetic. It gains new harmonic structures and an homage to the maestro Jobim through a two bar riff-ending of Jobim’s famous Waters Of March.
Back on the vibraphone, the Doctor plays the head of the Samba Jazz classic Nôa, Nôa. This is perhaps the album’s grooviest track. Amarante and Santos create such a great bed for Meurkens and Tsiganov here. All the fun and essential kicks are carefully executed during the head and throughout
The Jazz standard Body And Soul gains an elegant treatment. It flickers within an understated Bossa and an open Jazz ballad. The theme is presented by the vibes, differing from the other softer songs of the album. Tsiganov plays a beautifully melodic first solo, again passing it on to an equally arioso improvisation by Meurkens, who takes this classic out in an implicit melody of the B section and a more perspicuous last A.
Donato’s Minha Saudade, which is one of the Samba Jazz standards, starts out with a freely interpreted BA sections ‘gaitinha’ intro. One of the groovier tracks of the album, this is a great vehicle for Tsiganov and the Doctor to improvise.
Você Vai Ver is a perfect track to close. A medium Bossa with the tune’s intro played on piano and the melody played on the vibes. Santos plays great brushes under the melody and Meurkens’ solo, the first one here. A subsequent solo by Tsiganov expands the track to new heights and Amarante closes the solo section with an eloquent bass solo before the head out.
In many of our encounters and conversations, Dr. Meurkens and I always debate on different subjects such as the state of the New York Jazz scene, the Brazilian sound, the differences between other musical centers around the world, our musical aspirations and the difficulties and benefits of being leaders to our own projects. I have great admiration for Hendrik Meurkens, not only as for the great musician that he is, but also for his perseverance and long-term investment in prolonging, maintaining and at times reinventing a musical style that is so dear to me. Live at Bird’s Eye is a prime example of the above. I hope to see more of Hendrik Meurkens’ performances throughout the world and more of his records being put out. Keep playing your ‘gaitinha’ and bring forth your good vibes always, my friend! Congratulations on yet another alluring album.
Leonardo E. M. Cioglia
Produced by Hendrik Meurkens. Recorded November 14 & 15, 2008 and May 7 & 8, 2010 at Bird’s Eye Jazz Club, Basel, Switzerland, by Michael Scherrer. Mixed and Mastered by Jay Dudt at Audible Images, Pittsburgh, PA. Package design : Jack Frisch. Executive producer: Joachim “Jochen” Becker.