Devotees of the music of Mercedes Figueras are often spoilt for choice when it comes to fine recordings with her group The Black Butterflies. Even so, Figueras’ vividly recorded performances, drawn from the New York in 2015 stand as formidable achievements more so as they include three almost mythical saxophone duels with the legendary Leandro “Gato” Barbieri – the last recordings he ever made before he passed away just over a year later. They match technical mastery at the highest level with profound insight. No less impressive is the compelling interaction between Mercedes Figueras and The Black Butterflies, a crucial component in music that is so utterly visceral.
Soprano saxophonist Tony Larokko, vibraphonist Karl Berger, drummer Kenny Wollesen and percussionists Fred Berryhill and Bopa King Carre together with pianist Rick Bottari and bassist Nick Gianni all make contributions to ensemble passages, monologues and dialogues that are always carefully shaped and fully responsive to the subtle nuances in Gato Barbieri’s phrasing as well as that of Mercedes Figueras. Like her legendary Argentinean counterpart Mercedes Figueras eschews the consistently full-blooded vibrato sound and propensity for rubato commonly associated with the tangos. More striking, however, is Figueras’ winding, deeply expressive lines in the lyrical “Luisa”.
Mercedes Figueras adopts a much faster flowing tempo to “Gato’s Hat”, “Brother Nacho, Sister Lola” and “Merceditas” – especially in Ramon Sixto Rios’ classic. At first it seems startling since it divests the melody from its familiar numbing stillness. At the same time much restlessness and unease bubbles to the surface, especially in the climatic moments before the song’s dénouement. But few could take issue with Figueras’ negotiation of her soli as the move inexorably from introspection to some of the most visceral outpourings in saxophone literature. The sheer firepower Mercedes Figueras draws from her horn is electrifying in terms of its enormously varied tonal palette, a direct consequence of the unbridled passion of the African elements in the Argentinean tango.
But make no mistake this music would not be as irresistible as it is without contributions from each of the other members of The Black Butterflies. Deploying the widest possible range of colour, dynamics and articulation the members of the group – from Berger’s wizardry on the vibraphone to Wollesen’s, Berryhill’s and Carre’s percussion colourings – to Rick Bottari’s and Nick Gianni’s virtuoso playing, the group is truly adept at handling the tricky changes and the ratcheting up of tensions to the maximum as Figueras’ alto saxophone engages in a many-splendoured and poignantly expressive with conversations with The Black Butterflies.
Track List – 1: Hambone/Adios Nonino; 2: Gato’s Hat; 3: Luisa; 4: Brother Nacho Sister Lola; 5: Merceditas; 6: Love Samba; 7: Por Una Cabeza.
Personnel – Mercedes Figueras: alto saxophone and vocals (3); Karl Berger: vibraphone and melodica; Kenny Wollesen: drums and percussion; Bopa King Carre: bongos and percussion; Fred Berryhill: djembe and percussion, and body percussion (1); Tony Larokko: percussion, soprano saxophone (6), and vocals (1); Rick Bottari: piano; Nick Gianni: double bass. Featured Guest: Gato Barbieri: tenor saxophone (2, 4 & 5).
Label – Independent
Release date – March 2017
Running time – 39:14