Jazz Singer MAGOS HERRERA and String Quartet BROOKLYN RIDER Bring an Inspiring Evening of Music to Houston


Larisa Gawlik




Selections from their Award-Winning Album Dreamers Celebrating the Power of Beauty as a Political Act while Exploring the Artistry of Spanish and Latin American Poets

Video: NPR Tiny Desk Concert


HOUSTON (SEPTEMBER 10, 2019) – These days, when even the term “dreamers” is disputed territory, celebrating beauty is a political act. That is the beating heart of Dreamers, the inspiring collaboration between New York-based Mexican jazz singer Magos Herrera and the omnivorous string quartet Brooklyn Rider. Magos Herrera and Brooklyn Rider will perform works from their award-winning 2018 album Dreamers on Saturday, October 12 at 8 p.m. in Cullen Theater at the Wortham Theater Center presented by Society for the Performing Arts (SPA).

Dreamers, released in September 2018 by Sony Music Masterworks, includes gems of the Ibero-American songbook such as “Volver a los 17,” (To Be 17 Again); “Coraçao Vagabundo,” (Vagabond Heart); and “Balderrama,” as well as pieces written to texts by Octavio Paz, Rubén Darío, and Federico García Lorca — all reimagined by a superb group of arrangers including Jaques Morelenbaum, Gonzalo Grau, Diego Schissi, Guillermo Klein and Brooklyn Rider’s own Colin Jacobsen.

The connecting thread is that the poets and songwriters featured on Dreamers came from places that have endured brutal state violence. Consider Violeta Parra, from Chile; Joao Gilberto, Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, from Brazil; Gustavo “Cuchi” Leguizamón, from Argentina and García Lorca, Spain. Poet, essayist and Nobel Prize winner Paz even resigned as Mexico’s ambassador to India in 1968 to protest his government’s violent repression of student demonstrations.

“It is, first of all, an album of incredible songs, beautiful songs,” says Herrera. But it’s beauty with a purpose. The creators featured here, “were affected in different ways, but what transcends is their work, and their work represents love, “ she says. “Love for humanity, love for democracy and the inspiration to dream. It’s important to remember that every big change in history happened because someone dared to dream about it. This work is to inspire people to keep dreaming.”

In fact, for Colin Jacobsen, the quartet’s violinist and resident composer and arranger, Dreamers is a reminder that “beauty can come out of terrible situations… [last year] the world…[celebrated] the centenary of Leonard Bernstein and I think he has one of the great quotes: ‘This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before’.”

Dreamers was produced by Brooklyn Rider’s violinist Johnny Gandelsman, whose production credits also include Yo-Yo Ma & The Silk Road Ensemble’s Grammy-winning album Sing Me Home (2016), and music for the Ken Burns’ documentary TV series The Vietnam War.

Herrera, who after studying in Los Angeles and Boston settled in New York City in 2008, has proven to be an intrepid jazz singer, and her attitude and skill has led her to intriguing pursuits. In recent years — and these are only some broad brushstrokes — she followed a jazz album of original songs (Distancia, 2009) with a tribute to Mexican composers from the Golden Era of the 1930s and 40s (Mexico Azul, 2011) before pivoting to collaborate with flamenco producer and guitarist Javier Limón (Dawn, 2014).

Brooklyn Rider — Johnny Gandelsman, violin; Colin Jacobsen, violin; Nicholas Cords, viola; and Michael Nicolas, cello — also have made ignoring musical boundaries a defining element of their identity. They served notice with their debut recording Passport (2008), which included arrangements of Armenian folk songs, an arrangement of a song by Mexican rockers Café Tacuba and an original by Jacobsen, and have since continued to expand their repertoire to include music by composers as disparate as Philip Glass, Björk, Vijay Iyer and Elvis Costello. They have also explored collaborations with artists such as banjoist Béla Fleck, Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, jazz saxophonist Joshua Redman, Irish fiddler Martin Hayes, and Iranian kamancheh player Kayhan Kalhor.

“This is my first experience recording with strings and this is not just a string quartet, this is Brooklyn Rider,” says Herrera. “They have been together for years and have their own way of working. For me it was jumping into the unknown.”

“Working with Magos was very collaborative,” recalled Jacobsen. “We wanted this to be a project where there was really space for Magos’s singing but also for our playing, so it wasn’t a jazz album where you have strings just as background, but something that is very integrated.”

Dreamers includes three texts set to music composed by Herrera, two of them by Octavio Paz: “Niña” (Girl) and “Dreams” – from “Cántaro Roto” (Broken Jug). “It’s just a little fragment of one of his most amazing pieces, and it talks about dreaming,” says Herrera. “I really wanted to sing this song in its English version because that’s the core of the album. I wanted everybody to understand it.” The third piece, “Tu y Yo,”(You and I) is based on a work by Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío.

As for the choice of arrangers and matching them with specific songs, Jacobsen notes that “we wanted to have voices that really knew Magos, the singing tradition and the jazz vocabulary but also really knew string quartet vocabulary.”

“The title of the recording has many layers, but the main inspiration was obviously the current political scenario, and not only in the United States but around the world. As a Mexican woman artist, I wanted to change the narrative,” says Herrera, who is a spokesperson for the United Nations campaign Unite to End Violence Against Women. “There’s a narrative criminalizing immigrants and immigration. We wanted to express the dignity and beauty of these cultures.”

For all the discusions about borders, walls, and the history and meaning of migration, perhaps there is no stronger argument on Dreamers about the power of music to transcend than Jacobsen’s arrangement of “Balderrama.” Here’s an Argentine folk song, made popular by singer Mercedes Sosa, that celebrates a peña, a restaurant-bar meeting place for poets, writers and musicians in Salta, a province in the Northwest of Argentina. It seemingly couldn’t be more of a local ditty — or, as it turns out, more universal. And Jacobsen also hears something else that speaks to the spirit of Dreamers.

He first heard the song as part of the soundtrack for Steven Soderbergh´s Che, a biopic of Argentine revolutionary Ernesto “Ché” Guevara. “He uses it very poignantly as the closing theme. I heard it and it just touched a chord in me. I fell in love with it. So when I first spoke with Magos about this project and she mentioned “Balderrama” I said ‘yes’ immediately,” he recalls. “I told her we needed to do this project just because that one song is so beautiful — and also because I really wanted to arrange it.”

But, he soberly notes, “Encoded in that song there is something pertinent to the whole project. Here is a celebration of Balderrama, a place where musicians and poets come together and a fire burns through the night for beauty, and the song asks ‘where would we go if Balderrama goes out?’ which is to say, if that place wasn’t there, if that creative fire dies, then all would fall apart. I feel like that’s a beautiful image for the whole project.

About Society for the Performing Arts

Founded in 1966, Society for the Performing Arts (SPA) is the largest independent non-profit presenting organization in the Southwest. Since its inception, SPA has sponsored more than 1,000 performances of the world’s finest music, dance and theater events, in adherence to the belief that the arts are fundamental to the overall enrichment and quality of life within a community. In addition to presenting artists, SPA seeks to provide a variety of learning experiences for adults and children through master classes, lectures and special student performances, as well as build relationships between the performing arts and other interests within the greater Houston area and throughout the state of Texas.