Naming an uncompromising jazz album in commemoration of a soccer victory is not as strange as it may appear, for sports and the creative arts share an ability to unite diverse people in a sense of community that grows rarer every day. As we become ever more autonomous, as civic and religious ties continue to fray, sports and the arts remain the stages that bring us together and unite us in our passions. The cheers that are heard on “Viva Belgrano” echo those we encounter when the best musicians touch us with their passion, imagination and soul.
I’ve heard Oscar Feldman have that effect on a crowd, whether at a large festival like that in Punta del Este, Uruguay, where I first heard him perform, or in the closer quarters of Buenos Aires’ legendary coffee house El Tortoni, where I was privileged to hear him sit in with one of his mentors, pianist Horacio Larumbe. The saxophonist’s technique is beyond reproach, and his ideas are fresh and commanding, but what really got to me and the other listeners was his passionate, attention-grabbing sound.
“I immediately liked my sound,” Feldman explains with a laugh. “It was primitive, and I learned to develop it, but I was happy with where I started; and playing with a lot of singers made me see that it was important to go for more than just straight jazz technique. Gato Barbieri felt that way, too, that your sound is the source. Some people emphasize lines, where I put more effort into living every note.”
Feldman was born and raised in Cordoba, Argentina, where his father was the Director of Culture and owned an art gallery. “He had bought a saxophone to learn himself, but quickly realized that he didn’t have the time to develop like Coltrane and the other guys he was listening to on records. I got his sax in 1976, and really started to grow when I went to the local conservatory in ‘78,” Feldman explains. After becoming a founding member of the band Los Musicos del Centro and working with two of South America’s most influential artists, Hermeto Pascoal and Dino Saluzzi, Feldman moved to Buenos Aires, where he became immersed in that city’s jazz scene for the next decade.
In 1992, Feldman won a scholarship to Berklee College in Boston. When his studies were complete, he moved to New York, and over the past two decades has been heard with leaders including Al Di Meola, Paquito D’Rivera, Dave Samuels and Bebo Valdes. He has also previously recorded under his own name, most recently on the 2009 release Oscar e Familia (Sunnyside).
While original compositions were well represented on that collection, GOL (= goal) includes only one. “These are songs that I’ve been playing for a while, and each piece has gotten to the point where it feels like mine,” Feldman notes. “The program reflects how I want to hear music as a listener.” It is also well balanced between Feldman’s two primary horns, the soprano and alto saxophones.
The band Feldman has assembled is comprised of longstanding friends. “We all share the same vision, which means being eclectic enough to play a wide range of music. I can go from a bolero to more contemporary styles, so everyone has to be able to react spontaneously in all directions. Leo Genovese on piano gives me a lot of freedom and a dreamy quality, John Benitez brilliantly commands both acoustic and electric bass, and Antonio Sanchez on drums has grown so much since we met at Berklee. I met composer and vocalist Guillermo Klein there as well, although we’re both Argentinians.”
I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart is an arrangement originally written for Paquito D’Rivera. By stretching the meter, Feldman gives a more contemporary spin to the Ellington classic. “Just repeating something as wonderful as Johnny Hodges’ approach would be pathetic,” Feldman insists. “I want to transform standards so they become one of my songs.” He does the job here with an alto solo that builds in emotion, a path that Genovese also pursues in the subsequent piano choruses.
Oscar Feldman. Photo by Maria Postigo.
Composer Klein’s vocal is featured on La Cancion Que Falta. Feldman translates the title as “The Song That is Missing,” and notes a double entendre in the line where the singer says that he will “give it to her,” which reflects the combination of force and tenderness in the soprano solo. After Genovese’s spot, Feldman gives his own heartfelt reading to the mesmerizing melody.
Viva Belgrano, the lone Feldman original, celebrates a famous goal that sent his hometown football team from the second to the first league. The composer is on alto, and the band moves seamlessly through the shifting form, with the announcer’s ecstatic call emerging out of Sanchez’s cymbals after the solos. “He talks about `the pride of being a pirate, because the team gained the nickname Pirates after some in-game incidents,” Feldman explains. “When they celebrate a goal, they cover one of their eyes like a pirate rather than raising a fist. The announcer thanks God for life, the founder of Cordoba, the Jesuits, and `tonight, which not even a date with the most beautiful babe will beat.’”
Murmullo is a traditional Cuban bolero popularized in the 1930s by composer Electo `Chepin' Rosell's band `Chepin-Choven’. “It’s a very old one,” Feldman confirms. “I played it with a singer and found it so simple and beautiful, a change from the typical ballad standard.” It gets his juices flowing on soprano, and also features a commanding bass solo by Benitez.
The fierce improvising that Feldman (on soprano), Genovese (on electric piano) and Sanchez (over intense rhythm section support) apply on Klein’s N.N. based on the chacarera rhythm, reflects another side of Feldman’s homeland. “The title stands for `No Name,’ which is a reference to the disappeared in Argentina,” he explains. “The song is dedicated to Guido Carlotto, whose birth parents were disappeared during the dictatorship.”
Beck’s Nobody’s Fault but My Own appealed to Feldman as “kind of Beatlesish, with a George Harrison vibe.” It features alto, electric piano and a lengthy and galvanizing coda. “We had to go through two boring takes to find the groove we were all looking for,” Feldman admits, “but once we found it we knew.”
Is That So? which shows no strains in its finger-popping rhythm, hides its challenges in its structure. Feldman learned the Duke Pearson classic at one of the jam sessions he regularly attends in Manhattan Plaza, the midtown high-rise where he and many prominent artists live. “I wish I could write like that, straight-ahead but unique, where it sounds easy until you try to play it,” he comments, though any formal shifts are traversed smoothly in the alto and piano solos. For variety, Benitez and Sanchez trade eights.
For the collection’s final transformation, Feldman plays I Feel Fine in a soulful seven, with the bridge set at a slower waltz tempo. “Many people do harmonic modulations, but I find meter modulations interesting, and they work well with this harmony. I love the way it gets `smoky’ at the bridge, then goes back to reality. It has a blues feeling in the main melody, then the bridge gives the improvisers a surprise. You have to change emotional and musical gears to tell the story.” This presents no problem for Feldman (on alto) and Genovese, and takes “GOL” out with a return to a mood of unbridled celebration.
Produced by: Oscar Feldman. Recorded at: Bacque Recordings, Roselle, NJ on June 14 and 15, 2015. Recording and mastering engineer: Luis Bacque. Studio photography by: Maria Postigo. Album cover and design by: Fran Pontenpie. Executive Producers: Robert Powley, Joachim “Jochen” Becker.