Two Catalonian jazz/folk musicians take us on a tour of the Iberian peninsula, with an excursion or two into Latin America, in their boundary-ignoring second album together ReTornar. Magalí Sare has an immensely supple and emotive vocal instrument, and she joins in a spirit of exploration with the equally adventurous double bassist Manel Fortià. And all of a sudden I have a burgeoning library of Manel Fortià’s music under my belt, including his group Liberica’s Arrels, and one by his trio, Despertar.
Inspired by their travels and cultural exchanges as musicians, these songs lean heavily on their Catalonian roots, but they’ve spliced on bits of Portuguese, Brazilian, Mexican, Cuban, Argentinian and Afro-Caribbean folk traditions and rhythms, all of it informed by their jazz sensibilities. They start with various folk songs of various provenance and genre and joyfully mix things up. As their publicity sheet says: “Today it is no longer necessary to take a boat to discover and learn from new cultures, which is why the duo’s source of inspiration has been creating imaginary routes and musical fusions that give meaning to each of the songs on this album. Returning home after learning new rhythms and melodies makes us strengthen our own roots and allows them to be transformed without losing their essence.”
As I noted in my review of Arrels, Fortià is in the thick of a Catalonian resurgence of contemporary jazzy flamenco, and that spirit is prevalent here. They open with a reimagined take on the famous Carlos Gardel tango “Volver” translated into Catalan. I wasn’t aware that I was familiar with this tune, but once Magalí entered a section during which she sang the melody fairly straight, I realized I knew it well, and you may too. But for much of the song she improvises so energetically around the tune, matched by equally ambitious bass plucking from Fortiá and David Domínguez’s percussion, that it verged on a total reharmonization.
It’s an approach they follow throughout, not exactly deconstructing these songs, but never actually playing them straight through like a folk song, either. Magalí Sare’s approach incorporates elements of opera and musical theater, as well as playful bits of flamenco and jazz. Her voice dips and swoops, coos and flutters, ranging from a diva’s belt to a kittenish whisper. The stark pairing of double bass and vocals is unusual and opens the door wide for Sare’s deeply improvisational approach, although David Domínguez provides percussion and drums on seven of the 10 tracks.
One of those is another one everyone knows (even more everyones than “Volver”) the Cuban folk song (based on a José Marti poem) “Guantanamera.” Here they’ve put it in a fast 6/8 modern jazz arrangement with Fortià and Domínguez providing all kinds of misdirection and Sare mostly only hinting at the melody. Once I got used to it I came to really appreciate the way her playful delivery deflates the original’s staid seriousness.
Once you dig into these tunes you’ll find a lot of tango influence, including the opening track, an adaptation of a well-known tango by Carlos Gardel; its title is “Volver” translated into Catalan and serves as inspiration for the name of the album. The second track “Cambalache” is another tango, that begins in Buenos Aires but suddenly takes us to Rio de Janeiro in the middle of Carnival. Likewise the Brazilian song “Modinha” has an air of experimental tango.
But the cultural exchanges and blends go beyond that. They play the bolero “Verdad Amarga” by the Mexican composer Consuelo Velázquez fairly straight, but then turn the traditional Menorcan song “Roseret” into something like a Mexican ranchera. The traditional Portuguese song “Senhora do Almortão” is played in a fast flamenco in a 12-beat cycle called bulerías from Jerez in Andalucia. And they add a Sephardic touch to the popular song “La Leyenda del Tiempo.” All, of course, filtered through a jazz lens. ReTornar is a delightful excursion through time and space, via the talents of these extraordinary musicians.