Review: Minimal Hits, Barcelona




Dave Foxall catches jazz duo Carola Ortiz and JP Balcázar in Barcelona, with inventive covers including a new take on Sting’s Englishman In New York

I was lucky enough to see this duo twice in one week. The first time was at the small but packed Club Cronopios, the second across town at Café Mandacarú. Carola Ortiz (voice, clarinet, bass clarinet) and JP Balcázar (bass, glockenspiel) play jazz-inspired arrangements of classic pop songs from the last 50 years. Some, such as the Beatles’ Drive My Car, are done with fun, some (All I Need by Radiohead) are more experimental; and others like Portishead’s Glory Box are just downright beautiful.

Interestingly, they began with an original (Mi Mar) which showcased Ortiz’s voice and lyrical solos from both bass and clarinet. By doing so, they established their foundation identity as a jazz vocal duo who do covers (as opposed to a covers band who are a bit "jazzy") – smart move.

Then it was on to a wide variety of interpretations. As well as those already mentioned, we were treated to songs by Lauryn Hill, Stevie Wonder, Björk, Djavan, and Sting. Balcázar plays in more than a dozen different jazz and jazz-related groups and records prolifically for local label Fresh Sound (his latest trio recording is Rain, FSNT 420). It was fascinating to hear his sensitive and precise playing so unadorned, more often than not accompanied only by Ortiz’s voice.

And what a voice! Soaring, at times acrobatic, always pure, Carola Ortiz made every one of these well-known tunes her own with a sense of both style and humour – one of many highlights was the reworking of Sting’s 80s hit: Englishman In New York. It’s been covered before but rarely with such slick lyrical changes – "I’m an alien; I’m Mediterranean; I’m a Spanish girl in New York" – and even a little sly political comment, asking whether the eponymous girl in NY is Spanish or Catalan.

At the club gig, we were also treated to a few guest musicians on some of the songs, adding a little guitar or percussion. One of these was the other original song in the set list, Still Growing, from AxisOrca, an eclectic altpop outfit fronted by Ortiz with French multi-instrumentalist Landy Gana (the performing version of the band also features Balcázar). This song is the closer from the group’s debut, Axis (an album of highly accessible subtlety and complexity from Whatabout Music, WAM-049) and it says much that in the company of such popular songs, it fit right in.

The sonic palette was more varied than one might expect and much of that was down to the inventiveness of the arrangements – for example, reducing the beat-heavy deep sonority of All I Need to a simple glockenspiel riff, or the clarinet solo and arco outro on Glory Box. The emphasis was on creating a sparse beauty; the stripped-down format giving each instrument (or voice) a strength and power not necessarily so apparent in the original versions. Minimal Hits (and Ortiz and Balcázar) may still do most of their playing in Barcelona and Catalunya (aside from a tour of Colombia last summer) but expect to hear more of them in the wider world soon.

Photo by Esteve T-Vee


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