In 2017, violinist Maureen Choi issued her first album, Ida y Vuelta. It was an accomplished and noteworthy first effort, visiting the many experiences of her young life with engagement, polish, and promise. Theia , named for the Greek goddess of sight and all things shiny, reveals how much she’s matured as an instrumentalist, arranger and composer in such a short time. It is a beautiful work that merits wide recognition.
While Ida y Vuelta explored the various pan-Latin streams that had caught her fancy, Theia is a fluid pairing of flamenco and straight-ahead jazz, with scattered references to her classical, especially baroque, beginnings. Flamenco, though, with its fire, immediacy, its ability to embrace myriad influences, pushes through as Theia’s lifeblood.
Six of the album’s ten songs are Choi’s own; the others are personalized yet faithful reworkings of disparate repertoire, including a traditional Venezuelan joropo, and, as we will learn later, bold interpretations of works by Paco de Lucia and Manuel de Falla. Choi’s growing self-confidence as a composer/arranger is marked by more extended tracks with more meat on the bone, so to speak. “Phoenix Borealis,” for example, feels almost episodic. Furthermore, in this new work the dynamics of her music, always bright and stirring, seem more purposeful and expressive.
The Maureen Choi Quartet, comprised of the same players with her on the first CD—double bass, Mario Carrillo; piano, Daniel Garcia Diego; drums, Michael Olivera; and, of course violin, Maureen Choi— has matured along with her. Their integration is especially tight, intuitive. “Phoenix Borealis” is an extraordinary piece of frightful beauty. It begins romantically as Diego’s piano takes on a jazz line before Choi’s violin joins him for a smoothly partnered duet. Their semi-sweet strains grow in intensity and provide the gateway for Carillo’s bass to commandeer the piece with a brilliantly menacing, furious solo that soars in a crescendo of portentous screeches and roars, all unimaginably acoustic. After the crash-down into an abyss of silence, the piano and violin arise from the apocalypse on what one can only imagine is a new morning bathed in light; slowly, presence and vigor are regained, at first tentatively, sweetly, allowing the listener to feel renewed, safe, before an energetic, confident coda.
“Dear Paco” is Choi’s interpretation of the late Paco De Lucia’s famed bulería, “Cepa Andaluza.” Choi takes a fast-paced extended opening over a simple flamenco drum line and rides just over the drum most of the way through, picking up on a number of mini-motifs from De Lucia’s original melody and embellishing them. Her sound is exciting and classy, light as she bounces her bow masterfully over the strings. Her playing is passionate and proud; she’s at her very best, and one can almost feel the great De Lucia challenging her to give her all in his name. Finally, one can marvel at Choi’s seamless transposition from guitar to violin of the buleria and its dumbfounding, complex rhythm.
On the final track Choi tackles Manuel de Falla’s orchestral “Danza Ritual de Fuego,” reaching into lusciously deep, cello-rich tones. Diego’s piano has underpinned handily the jazz presence throughout Theia, and here he takes a solo with a plucky Afro-Cuban tinge. Choi gives the arrangement her pushy dynamic, stretching volume, speed, tone, and feeling. It’s earthier than the elegance of Falla, but its boldness reflects flamenco’s fanfare.
Theia is elegaic, fierce, and masterful, a compliment to the idiom Maureen Choi has dedicated herself to. If she is impelled to travel to a new soundscape to explore what captures her as flamenco has done, it’s assured that the effort will be stirring, original and, like a true subject of Theia, well-polished. - Carolina Amoruso