by Raul da Gama, Latin Jazz Network

The celebrated composer, pianist and director of the award-winning Spanish Harlem Orchestra, Oscar Hernández has another incarnation and it’s called Alma Libre, a smaller group that he sometimes calls together to play his high-spirited and energetic – and sometimes moody and elegiac – music. As with everything he composes (and performs), this repertoire is pure gold; a series of highly imaginative compositions with soaring melodies, vivid harmonies grounded in the earthy dynamism of Afro-Caribbean rhythms that we have come to love as Latin Jazz today. And while Mr Hernández is a musician rooted in the tradition of this music, he also worships at the altar of originality, firm in the belief that the inner dynamic of tradition is always to innovate.

Editor’s Pick · Featured Album · Oscar Hernández & Alma Libre: Love the Moment

As a result, Mr Hernández’s work explodes with provocative ideas and narratives. By actively throwing overboard melodic, structural and harmonic hooks that have become expressively blunted from overuse, Mr Hernández has systematically built this music from what might – or might not – be left. The result is music that is daring, with emotionally-laden harmonies and adventurous instrumental combinations here delivered to perfection by the members of Alma Libre; especially by the great Justo Almario, who plays with wizened beauty, each melodic variation following the other, his sumptuously warm saxophone sound (especially on “Groove for Peace”) brilliantly captured on this recording.

The other musicians on this date too feel Mr Hernández’s music in a special way and respond to it with truly idiomatic performances – from the work by bassist Oskar Cartaya and drummer Jimmy Branly whose visceral energy makes this music throb and swing. And there is percussionist Christian Moraga who plays with an unerring sense of line and who strikes the skins with a wonderfully precise and pellucid tone. Trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos’ style is intimate, romantic and unfussy. The brilliant young violinist Dayren Santamaria performs with great subtlety and her playing reaches a high point of textural elegance midway through her solo on “Danzón for Lisa”.

Meanwhile, make no mistake, this is Mr Hernández’s moment in to bask in the radiance of his music. Listening to the way in which he suggests harmonics with his left hand, while his right hand seductively announces the melody ornamenting it with exquisitely chosen runs and arpeggios, and how he sculpts the long, meditative inventions of “Love The Moment” and, later, on “Mi Canción Es Para Ti” as well. It’s clear that there’s not a single semiquaver that has not been fastidiously considered. The pianist’s playing is not only muscular and hugely powerful, but also delicate and elegant, often favouring the mellifluous timbre of his great instrument in the spacious and lofty arrangements of his work. The music of Love The Moment is something that will not be forgotten… not for a very long time.

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