Marama Café Band – Introducing… (MARAMA RECORDS MR0001. CD Review by Alison Bentley)
It’s that feeling of wandering round an old European city – Bucharest, maybe, or Sofia – and suddenly hearing music that lures you irresistibly into a nearby café. Bandleader and accordionist Pete Watson describes a Romanian “café concert” as “a bit of music in all styles”: on this recording there’s a heady mélange of jazz, Eastern European folk and gypsy music, French Musette and Argentinean tango. The four British musicians have many musical roots, and met in London in the ’90s. They’ve been playing this music on London gigs for several years, and the album has a vibrant, live feel.
There’s an element of American jazz: Goodman’s Airmail Special has strongly swinging solos from Watson’s accordion and Frank Biddulph’s gypsy violin, the two harmonising on the original Charlie Christian riffs. Essential to the groove throughout the album is Paul Tkachenko’s solid, energetic bass. Guitarist David Ahmed’s Tuxedo Stomp hints at Tuxedo Junction and bluesy Django-style swing, with a glittering guitar solo. Ellington’s Azure is dreamy, with Wednesday Gray guesting on vocals, smooth over the liquid accordion and violin lines.
Many tracks draw on French styles and Gray also sings Olivieri’s J’Attendrai with clarity and passion, with Grappelli-esque flourishes from Biddulph. Two Murena/Colombo waltzes feature Watson – it’s as if you’re dancing round the imaginary café. Passion Waltz folds violin in among the accordion trills, and Indifference has a folky roughness to the fiddle sound, whirling round the accordion melody, with a Balkan colour to the solos. Two pieces are by gypsy jazz violinist Titi Winterstein, and this version of Swing 85 has a swashbuckling Manouche feel. Ungertikko Bashepen opens with Balkan guitar tremolo, speeding up as the violin seems about to burst into flames.
From Argentina, El Choclo Tango is arranged with dramatic pauses, and Eastern European decoration. Piazzolla’s surprisingly rocky tango Zita is full of energy and intense solos. There are folk tunes: Watson’s arrangement of the reel Following My Star of Munster for violin and accordion keeps its Irish feel, but Eastern Europe is never far away. Biddulph’s arrangement of Csardas Hongroise opens with slow Balkan decorations from violin and accordion, then speeds up, the way klezmer can, into double time. Russian folk tune Deux Guitares, arranged by Watson to remember the death of a Romanian friend, becomes Deux Guitares à la Baz. Here it’s a tango, with violin and accordion phrases dissolving exquisitely into each other; then it suddenly leaps off into a Cossack dance.
But in the end, it feels artificial to think of the jazz, French, Argentinian and folk styles separately, as the band’s distinctive sound brings them all together with brilliant musicianship and panache.
LINK: Marama Café Band on Pete Watson’s website