Johnny's Dream Club
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Johnny's Dream Club

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The best kept secret in music

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"Cuban-born jazz guitarist Juan-Carlos Formell feels New Orleans rhythms on his latest CD"

Cuban-born jazz guitarist Juan-Carlos Formell feels New Orleans' rhythms on his latest CD
by Keith Spera, Music writer, The Times-Picayune October 10, 2008


Juan-Carlos Formell fronts his band at Snug Harbor on Oct. 9-10.

Traditional jazz clarinetist Michael White knew next to nothing about Juan-Carlos Formell before joining the Cuban-born guitarist at Bywater's Piety Street Recording in April. Having earned a doctorate in Spanish, White had no trouble communicating with Formell verbally.

Or, as it turned out, musically.

"I felt a strong bond with him, " White said. "I'm experimenting with different kinds of ethnic folk music, and I've always liked Cuban music. When I did 'Blue Crescent' (White's recent CD on Basin Street Records), I listened to a lot of Cuban themes.

"So this was bringing me back to territory that I wanted to explore. It was a way of stretching out on things I had been listening to for years."

That April session was the New York-based Formell's second recording trip to New Orleans. He is intrigued by the commonalties shared by traditional New Orleans and Cuban music; Jelly Roll Morton once referred to the "Latin tinge" in early jazz.

Formell's latest Big Easy adventure resulted in "Johnny's Dream Club, " his new album. Formell and his band will showcase much of the material on Thursday, Oct. 9, and Friday, Oct. 10 at Snug Harbor, with White slated to sit in.

"Music is the result of the impact of a moment upon a place, " Formell said this week through his translator, wife/manager Dita Sullivan.

"Arriving in New Orleans, I suddenly understood that the entire Caribbean was a house, and all of its ports a door. I saw myself in a constantly shifting mosaic, able to jump from then to now and here to there, but never return, because every place is home."

Born in Havana in 1964, Formell is a fourth-generation musician. But he bristled at his inability to explore his musical ideas fully under the Castro regime. In 1993, he fled Cuba and eventually arrived in New York City -- where he soon discovered a different form of creative oppression.
"My first goal -- it's more of a mission -- is to establish that I am part of a generation of musicians in exile, " Formell said. "In a way it's a secession. We seceded from a stifling and ridiculous dictatorship.

"But when we came (to New York) we found that we had to keep seceding from what we call 'oficialismo' -- the official definition of jazz, the terrible and imbecilic idea of what Latin music is 'supposed' to be -- a loud dance party. We had to make up our own rules."

To that end, he focused on a marriage of intimate guitar meditations and spoken word lyricism. His 2000 album "Songs From a Little Blue House" -- produced by John Fischbach, the veteran producer and recording engineer who co-founded Piety Street Recording -- earned a Grammy nomination. More albums and tours followed. In May 2005, he journeyed to New Orleans to record the solo guitar album "Cemeteries & Desire."

He knew he would eventually record here again. After a two-night stand at Snug Harbor in April, he and his band set up shop at Piety Street.

The band included representatives of what Formell describes as a "renaissance of new Latin music" in New York fueled by composer/musicians from across South America: Argentinean bassist Pedro Giraudo, Cuban pianist Elio Villafranca, Cuban percussionist Jorge Leyva and trombonist/violinist Lewis Kahn, a pivotal figure in the development of Latin music in New York.

Augmented on two tracks by White, they recorded "Johnny's Dream Club, " which takes its name from a famed Havana nightclub.

"I started this as a record of 'Feeling, ' a kind of vocal and guitar music created in Cuba in the late 1940s, " Formell said. "It was very jazzy and cool in concept and delivery, using a lot of diminished chords.

"By the time we finished, I realized that we had done a rhapsody that in a way is a Cuban version of Dixieland. I had traveled back to the source to bring it home once more."

Formell traces a direct line from "Johnny's Dream Club" to jazz's infancy.

"There's something very much of the ambiance of 1910 in this album -- that was the highest point of modernism, " Formell said. "Jelly Roll Morton was one of the great modernists, and the album is, in its own way, a tribute to his spirit."

For his part, White was impressed by Formell.

"There's a certain romantic quality in his playing and singing that's very real, " White said. "It's full of human emotion, which overcomes any other thing about technique. He had very good technique -- the rhythmic drive and intensity were great -- but he created a sound that was expression. It sounded like somebody speaking from the heart."


Tickets: $20 at the door (shows are expected to sell out).
- New Orleans Times-Picayune


"Johnny's Dream Club"

Juan-Carlos Formell
8 p.m. & 10 p.m. Thu.-Fri., Oct. 9-10
Snug Harbor, 626 Frenchmen St., 949-0696; www.snugjazz.com

CubaNola Arts Collective presents the Cuban composer, vocalist and guitar legend whose visits to New Orleans have become more frequent in recent years. He recorded his latest album, Johnny's Dream Club (for which these shows serve as a release party), at Piety Street Studios in April with local jazz bandleader and educator Dr. Michael White on clarinet. The shows are scheduled to commemorate the Cuban holiday of "El 10 de Octubre," which marks the beginning of Cuba's war of independence from Spain. The album is a delirious whirl of ethereal tone poems and intense, almost nightmarish guitar, all meant to evoke Cuba's chaotic history. The title refers to a legendary Havana cabaret of the '50s, and here it represents a symbolic place outside of time and tumult, where music rules. The all-star band includes White on clarinet, Cuban pianist Osmanay Paredes, Argentinian bassist Pedro Giraudo, Cuban percussionist Jorge Leyva, and Lewis Kahn on violin and trombone. Tickets $25. — Fensterstock



- Gambit Weekly


"VOICE CHOICES"

"Johnny's Dream Club revives the harmonically sophisticated, ballad-oriented, filin (or "feeling") sound performed by singer Omara Portuondo, among others, that emerged in Havana's bohemian enclaves during the 1950s. Lush, loose, and subtle, filin is an apt vehicle for the ceaselessly inquisitive Formell and his quartet. " -- THE VILLAGE VOICE

- The Village Voice May 22, 2008


Discography

"songs from a little clue house" (RCA/BMG) 1999
"las calles del paraiso" (EMI) 2002
"cemeteries & desire" (solo) EMI/Narada 2005
with "son radical -- "son radical" EMI/Narada 2006
with Johnny's Dream Club "Johnny's Dream Club" 2008

Photos

Bio

Grammy-nominated Cuban guitarist/composer/vocalist JUAN-CARLOS FORMELL re-ignites the connections between Cuban music and American jazz in his explosive new project "Johnny's Dream Club". Named for a legendary Havana jazz cabaret, Johnny's Dream Club represents a place outside time -- the vortex of the tumultuous force field between New Orleans and Havana, where the parallel lines of Cuban music and American jazz converge.

The album, recorded in New Orleans in 2008, under the auspices of Grammy-winning producer John Fischbach, presents a stellar line-up of Latin jazz masters: Argentine bassist Pedro Giraudo; Lewis Kahn of Fania All-Stars fame on violin & trombone; Cuban percussionist Jorge Leyva; Cuban jazz pianist Elio Villafranca; and the celebrated New Orleans clarinetist Dr. Michael White. They conjure a delirious sequence of juxtapositions: jazz rhapsodies evoking the nightmare of a destroyed city flow into songs about being lost at sea; the bloody history of the Caribbean is set against layered, allusive jazz ballads inspired by Havana's "Feeling" movement.

Juan-Carlos describes the music as "a reflection of our culture today -- in the post-modern landscape, we are all refugees from the broken city, haunted, adrift at sea, in danger of losing our true reference point and losing our way forever. I keep returning to New Orleans for inspiration because I believe that there, at the crossroads of the Caribbean, it's possible to create music that embraces the past while gazing at the future -- a new music without genres and categories."