First Appeared in The Music Box, May 2008, Volume 15, #5
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Mon May 5, 2008, 06:30 AM CDT
Few people outside Ecuador have heard of Alex Alvear. Hopefully, the North American release of Equatorial, his groundbreaking new album, will remedy this oversight. Alvear began his career in Quito as the founder of Promesas Temporales, a group that blended rock and jazz styles with traditional Andean music. His local rock-star status was cut short in 1985, however, when he was arrested by the Ecuadorian secret police, who believed he was a member of a guerilla group that was threatening the country’s right-wing dictatorship. After being released from prison, he moved to Boston where he enrolled at the Berklee School of Music and began playing with local Afro-funk and Latin jazz outfits.
Despite recording some excellent efforts — including Immigrant Blues, a fine album that he made with Mango Blue in 2001 — Alvear became increasingly dissatisfied with the path of his artistic development. With time, he began to experiment with traditional Ecuadorian song structures, essentially re-embracing his cultural heritage, which he had rejected in his youth. If anything, Equatorial proves that, after years of soul searching, Alvear’s reunion with his past has been worth the wait.
The music on Equatorial is familiar yet exotic, and the pan pipes, flutes, and Andean harp that weave in and out of the arrangements help to create an otherworldly atmosphere that is immensely captivating and appealing. Over the course of the album’s 13 tracks, the melodic structures and rhythmic guitar phrasing that anchor the songs carry the listener through some beautiful musical territory. It is a journey that manages to be both relaxing and stimulating, and the more that they are heard, the more the gentle melodies slowly reveal Alvear’s sophisticated compositional approach. The sound of his guitar is spellbinding, and the seductive vocals offered by Marta Gomez on Sońando con Quito are absolutely sublime.
Although the effort represents Alvear’s return to playing traditional Ecuadorian music, Equatorial is by no means a collection of tracks that should be relegated to the polite confines of a cultural museum. In spite of the Andean instruments that define the album’s sound, Equatorial’s stance is defiantly contemporary. After twenty years of living in the United States, it is inevitable that traces of jazz and rock can be heard in Alvear’s music. These influences, however, are now under his control, and they represent only one of the many colors from which he draws to give life to his compositions. So, when Alvear chose to re-record Flor de Kikuyo — a song that he and Promesas Temporales first performed while living in Quito — the jazz chords are at the service of the Ecuadorian melodies and not vice versa.
Equatorial offers a doorway into a warm and vibrant universe that is worth exploring more fully. It is an album that should help to broaden people’s understanding of the rich musical traditions of Central and South America as well as how they have intersected with popular Western forms. Of course, no matter how frequently a particular piece of music is referred to as "good," such praise is not worth much if nobody wants to spend any amount of time listening to the material. This, however, shouldn’t be a problem with Equatorial. It is a delightful melodic collection of songs that can be appreciated whether it is played gently in the background or at full volume. ˝
Of Further Interest...
1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2008 The Music Box