George Colligan’s Jazztruth reviews “Oh my soul”

Trio Bembe: Oh My Soul

Trio Bembe: Scott Senior,Amber Epp, and Rodrigo Muñoz
Trio Bembe: Scott Senior,Amber Epp, and Rodrigo Muñoz

Epp heard jazz for the first time at age 15, and encountered Latin music while studying in the jazz program at he University of Manitoba

If you know the Winnipeg jazz scene, you most likely know vocalist/ pianist Amber Epp. I first met and heard Epp two years ago at the Monday Night Hang (the local weekly jazz jam session, which is now known as the Wednesday Night Hang, since the Orbit Room changed it to Wednesdays). She struck me immediately as a natural performer, brimming with confidence and energy. Epp is from Steinbach, Manitoba, which apparently has a jazz scene so small it fits in a thimble (meaning there is no jazz scene!). Consequently, Epp never heard any jazz or Latin music until she was 15 years old. However, being the driven, precocious person she is, she immersed herself in the great jazz singers, studied hard in the University of Manitoba Jazz program, and has become an young artist with a bright future.

Amber Epp
Amber Epp

Epp spent three months studying in Cuba

Amber Epp, in addition to being a great jazz singer, is also quite steeped in Afro-Cuban and South American music. She spent three months studying in Cuba, and has worked with a Winnipeg-based salsa group called Papa Mambo for a few years. Her own band is an offshoot known as Trio Bembe. The group features Epp on vocals, Chilean musician Rodrigo Muñoz on guitar, and Canadian native Scott Senior on percussion. I had the good fortune to work with them in Winnipeg last year as a guest and I enjoyed myself immensely.

a cajon which Scott Senior plays in Trio Bembe
a cajon which Scott Senior plays in Trio Bembe

Trio Bembe has two CDs currently available:

The first is self titled, and features many Afro-Carribean standards and some originals by Epp and Muñoz. What’s amazing about the group is the powerful groove and fullness coming from merely a trio. It’s a nice change of pace to hear Muñoz’ guitar as the heart of the band, since most music of this type (at least what I am most familiar with) features brass and piano. Epp has a voice that is full of character and emotion; she sings well in English and Spanish. The grooves, well provided by Senior on various instruments (including the cajon, which is seen a lot in Spanish flamenco music), are influenced by traditions, yet also convey a certain modern funkiness. My favorite song on Trio Bembe is Epp’s original entitled “Victory”, a bluesy tune with optimistic lyrics which is perfect for airplay.

Trio Bembe‘s sophomore recording is called Oh My Soul

This record is a continuation of the previous CD, but with some special guests on selected tracks (such as Jimmy Green on tenor saxophone,Victor Hugo López on guitar and the tres, and yours truly on keys), and also more of Epp‘s compositions. Epp‘s singing and Spanish has improved even more, and the music has more intensity. The opening cut, “Donde Estabas Tu?” sounds straight out of Cuba.  A surprisingly fast version of the Cuban lullaby  “Drume Negrita” is also quite convincing.

the Cuban tres guitar
the Cuban tres guitar

Epp’s singing is accurate and intense

I was honored and delighted that Epp asked me to lay down a track on Tania Maria’s classic funk anthem “Come With Me.” It’s a version which is not as heavy- sort- of- disco oriented as the original, but it has a nice relaxed feel. But the album picks up again with a lively version of “Guararey de Pastorita” which features the wonderful tres stylings of Victor López.(The tres is a Cuban type of small folk guitar,with three doubled strings.It’s primarily used for rhythm, but it’s not really strummed, it provides rhythmic counter-melodies. It’s a lot like the calvaqhinho in Brazilian music.) Throughout the album, Epp’s vocal style is not concerned with heavy virtuoso melismas;her voice has a distinctive, buoyant, compact quality, with just enough vibrato to keep it interesting. Her singing is accurate and intense.

Authentic Latin melodies

When I hear cuts like “La mucura“, which is an Antonio Fuentes tune from the late 40’s, and “Yerbero  Moderno“, a Celia Cruz hit, I get a sense of high authenticity. Trio Bembe knows their history. But also, with originals like “Oh my soul,” and “Olhos de luz“, I get a look into the future. I see great things for this band. If you live in Winnipeg, you can catch them (and me!) at their CD release party on April 15th, 8pm, at the West End Cultural Centre.

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