What: Jane Bunnett and Maqueque (opener Laila Biali)
Where: First Metropolitan United Church
When: Thursday night
Rating: 4/5 stars
Loosely translated, Manqueque means the energy of a young girl’s spirit. And this is what we experienced Thursday night, when Jane Bunnett and Maqueque played TD Victoria International JazzFest.
For her latest project, Bunnett has formed a fine band with five young Cuban women. The sextet served up a rich Afro-Cuban gumbo notable on many fronts.
Aside from Bunnett’s own flute and soprano sax soloing, always inventive and virtuosic, the glue holding Manqueque together is its lead singer. Daymé Arocena, wearing a white outfit and matching turban, was an ever-smiling presence who embodied the pure joy of music making. Her voice was a dark burnished delight, capable of ethereal highs that sound like sighs and dizzying dips into the bass clef.
One could see why Bunnett hand-picked each of these Cuban artists, most still in their 20s. The bassist, who goes by the name Yusa, created a wonderfully fluid groove with gifted drummer Yissy Garcia, who's a polyrhythmic powerhouse. Yusa, who also plays the traditional Cuban guitar, the tres, danced energetically when she performed — a visual counterpoint to this music's joie de vivre.
Pianist Danae Olano (who could have been turned up in the mix) offered wonderfully expressive solos — note-stuffed workouts that never sounded florid. Magdelys Savigne added significantly to the rhythmic mix with her sharp contributions on the congas and cajón.
Manqueque played mostly original compositions. On songs such as Bunnett's Papineau and the ebullient Manqueque , her saxophone intertwined tightly with Arocena's voice — a distinguishing feature of this band's sound.
Highly unusual was a reinvention of Bill Withers' soul lament, Ain't No Sunshine. With Arocena and Yusa switching on lead vocals, the song sounded dreamlike, even hallucinatory. Also notable was the group's interpretation of the Cuban classic, Mamey Colorao by Pedro Peruchin Justiz. That tune (and the evening) was capped by Garcia's wonderful drum solo. When a phone rang out at the end, the drummer cheekily mimicked its sound on her cymbal.
The concert opened with a long set by Laila Biali, a Vancouver singer/pianist whose jazz-pop sensibility suggests a mix of Holly Cole and Carole King. Biali's show included imaginative versions of Joni Mitchell's Woodstock, Leonard Cohen's Show Me the Place, Nature Boy and a sultry reading of David Bowie's Let's Dance.
She's a talented singer and pianist. Especially memorable was her sparse take on the jazz standard, I'll Never Smile Again. Backed by just bass and drums, Biali's interpretation was soulful, vulnerable and affecting. And her trio — double bassist George Koller and drummer Larnell Lewis — was nothing short of superb.
A new venue for the Victoria JazzFest . the First Metropolitan United Church is definitely a mixed bag. The acoustics, while not exactly terrible, are echoing and the sound of cymbals tended to wash over the everything.