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In whatever language you speak, esperanza — “hope” in English — has been in distressingly short supply of late, between the turmoil of political divisiveness and the tragedy of a rampaging global virus. But that’s precisely why Negroni’s Trio decided to christen their vibrant 11th album Esperanzas (Sony Latin).
“We started recording this album in the middle of this pandemic,” explains drummer Nomar Negroni over Skype from his home in Miami. “We were recording the music with a mix of emotions. Of course, we were happy to be back together doing what we love. At the same time, we were in the middle of the apocalypse. So our goal with this album was [conceived] in the same spirit that we make all our music, which is bringing love and happiness.”
Esperanzas arrives as the three-time Latin Grammy-nominated trio prepare to celebrate their 20th anniversary as a band. The trio’s central relationship dates back even further — a lifetime, in fact, as pianist-composer José Negroni and drummer Nomar are father and son. The latest album is their fifth with bassist Josh Allen, who Nomar considers an honorary brother.
“A lot of people want to be next to my dad and to gain knowledge from him,” Nomar says. “I’ve gotten that since I was a little kid, and I don’t take that for granted.”
“It’s a blessing,” adds José, speaking from San Juan, inhis native Puerto Rico, with Nomar translating. “Musically speaking, I feel safe in the trio. Why safe? Because we’ve been playing together for more than 20 years, and I know that wherever I go, Nomar is going to be there because we have such a deep connection musically and spiritually.”
The evidence of that feeling runs throughout Esperanzas, which goes to a staggering number of places while retaining the buoyant feel and exhilarating chemistry of the trio. Opener “Qué Felicidad,” one of five José Negroni compositions on the album, is a dazzling showcase for the trio’s ability to navigate sudden shifts in tempo and mood. Beginning with a stormy solo piano intro, the title track takes on a jauntier tone with the melodic pairing of the elder Negroni’s piano and guest Ismael Vergara’s serpentine clarinet.
Spanish vocalist María Toledo brings a smoldering huskiness to the classic boléro “Encadenados,” while Edgar Omar’s wordless harmonies add rich layers to José’s silky keyboards for a contemporary twist on Clare Fischer’s “Morning/Una Mañana.” Joined by tenor saxophonist Ed Calle, a frequent collaborator, the trio utterly transform the familiar standard “How High the Moon,” with synth sounds providing a cosmic feel to the intro before the tune swerves into a bustling Latin feel.
Despite the vivid and wide-ranging imagination on display, along with the passionate performances captured on the album, José insists that he’s more of a journeyman composer than a divinely inspired artist.
“I consider myself a worker,” he says. “When it’s time to make an album, I know I have to go to the piano and start working and composing. Then the inspiration will come, but I look at it as a job.”
It’s a job that José Negroni had been doing long before forming the trio, as a sideman or musical director for pop singers as well as a teacher in Puerto Rico. He’d never considered forming his own band until Nomar made the suggestion while home for summer vacation from Berklee. They recorded a three-song demo and booked a few club dates in their hometown of Miami, where they happened to be heard — and signed — by the president of Universal Music Latino.
“The rest is history,” Nomar concludes. “My dad had always composed and arranged, but I think he finally discovered his passion and his gifts when we started the trio.” — Shaun Brady