The VNote Ensemble: play Berkeley on Friday Nov. 21

The music of Venezuela is one of the great cultural treasures of the Americas, a fabulously verdant tradition in which the intermingling of indigenous, European and African influences has yielded a vivid array of musical forms. No-one has done more to spread awareness of these riches than Jackeline Rago, a percussion expert and master of the diminutive four-string cuatro, Venezuela’s national instrument. Her longtime band, the VNote Ensemble, celebrates the release of a beautiful new album Urbano at the California Jazz Conservatory on Friday.

A quartet featuring Donna Viscuso on flute and harmonica, bassist Sam Bevan, and percussionist Michaelle Goerlitz, VNote has honed a sumptuously syncopated body of work integrating modern jazz with folkloric Venezuelan forms such as joropo and merengue (not to be confused with the popular Dominican dance style). One reason that Venezuelan songs and grooves haven’t gotten much traction outside the country is that until recently the nation’s musicians tended to stay home.

“Venezuela is a country where people consume what they produce, including music,” Rago says. “Our artists are famous within the country, and we’re really proud of our musical roots. It’s something like Brazil or Cuba on a smaller scale. But meeting a Venezuelan musician outside of the country is rare, because there are few of us here.”

The election of Hugo Chavez in 1998 greatly altered the landscape. Numerous musicians fled the country, while the intense international media spotlight that Chavez attracted drew attention to Venezuela’s innovative and comprehensive music education program, El Sistema Venezuela. The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s 2007 appointment of then 26-year-old Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel as music director brought international attention to El Sistema.

Venezuela’s musical bounty wasn’t news in the Bay Area however, due to Rago’s persistent effort. She’s showcased California compatriots like pianist Otmaro Ruiz and percussionists Omar Ledezma and Lali Mejia in her Venezuelan Music Project. The latest addition to the scene is the great jazz pianist and SFJAZZ Collective member Ed Simon, who recently settled in Oakland and is teaching a class with Rago on Venezuelan music at the CJC (he’s also performing at The Addition in San Francisco on Dec. 10 with collective trio Steel House featuring drum master Brian Blade and bassist Scott Colley).

VNote is Rago’s primary musical vehicle. The band has gradually developed a singular repertoire of original compositions and Venezuelan standards transformed through a jazz perspective. The band is very much the idiosyncratic synthesis of the four musicians. The centerpiece of Urbano is a three-movement “Suite Jazznera” written with the support of SF Friends of Chamber Music. Bevan contributed the album’s exquisite title track.

“Sam is an amazing composer, a classically trained pianist who switched to bass,” Viscuso says. “Jackie comes from that very strict Venezuelan background, and Michaelle is an expert on Brazilian and Latin rhythms. My background is jazzy and quirky. We’ve been going in this direction for a while, but the new album has some of our most ambitious work.”

Raised in the culturally cosmopolitan capital Caracas, Rago started playing mandolin at the age of five and grew up performing in folkloric ensembles. She moved to the Bay Area to continue her music studies in 1982, eventually graduating from the now defunct Music and Arts Institute of San Francisco, where she majored in classical mandolin. While she’s a master of Afro-Venezuelan percussion, she’s quick to point out that the cuatro can also be considered a percussion instrument.

“It’s a little Renaissance guitar from the Andalusian part of Spain, and it’s traditionally been used in Venezuela to accompany other instruments,” Rago says. “But when you teach a rhythm that comes from the coast of Venezuela, the heart of Afro-Venezuelan culture, the cuatro is always playing the pattern of one of the percussion instruments, so the drumming patterns are implicit with the chord progressions.”

Rago and Viscuso first played together in the all-women world music combo Wild Mango and went on to found Snake Trio in 1997, looking to blend traditional Venezuelan forms and jazz. They produced and recorded an excellent album in 2000, The Dance of the Snake, but the trio took a deeper turn during a 2002 trip to Venezuela, where they recorded rhythm tracks with a battery of top Venezuelan percussionists.

The group rechristened itself on 2009’s The VNote Ensemble, which introduced a captivating repertoire of original material and classic jazz compositions such as Wayne Shorter’s “Footsteps,” Charles Mingus’s “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” and John Coltrane’s “Mr. PC.” On its signature piece, the group transforms Heraclio Fernández’s beloved Venezuelan standard, “El Diablo Suelto” into “El Diablo Monk” by setting it to a swing pulse and interpolating lines from Thelonious Monk.

“It’s a waltz from the turn of 19th century, and it became the tune you play if you want to demonstrate you can really play an instrument,” Rago says. “Donna got the idea of rearranging it with some excerpts from Monk. When she played it on the phone for me I said, wait, it sounds too crazy! But when we got together to play it was so much fun. We just go for it and present our music in a way that doesn’t lose either side of our fusion.”

The VNote Ensemble plays the California Jazz Conservatory in downtown Berkeley on Friday, Nov. 21 at 8 p.m. Visit the Conservatory online for details.

Andrew Gilbert writes for Berkeleyside, the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.

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Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....