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Concert Reviews

Concert Review: CJC's Chelsea Prastiti is Bonita

John Fenton

Chelsea Prastiti’s Bonita gig was a phantasmagoria of warm evocative sounds. I have the greatest respect for her work and in this case, she curated something rare; she conjured up the vibe from another place and time, and she did so without a hint of contrivance. The Brazil of the sixties and seventies with its Bossa Nova soundtrack was an era of infinite possibility. In the end, the dream was stolen by a repressive authoritarian regime but the music, a timeless gift to the world, lived on. Over the last half-century, the Jobim songbook, in particular, has remained popular, and while some interpretations have been breathtaking, others, have been pale imitations. 

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Chelsea Prastiti (image supplied)

What Prastiti has done here is both respectful and innovative. She has composed a suite of tunes that nails the vibe as it taps into the essence of New Wave Brasileira while evoking the founding era. The concept for this gig and many of the tunes were conceived years ago. Prastiti had other projects cooking back then, and so she waited her time. As it turns out, she timed it perfectly. With our borders closed, the desire for high-quality Kiwi music is at an all-time high. Audiences are not being distracted by ‘once again and for the very last time’ tours by fading greats, and the realisation is dawning that homegrown is often better. 

Another plus for holding the gig now was that her friends and collaborators were all within reach: notably, Elizabeth Stokes and Ben Sinclair of The Beths. The recent winners in the Best Group category at the NZ Music Awards would probably have been back on a world tour right now, but the pandemic curtailed that. The ensemble members all go back quite a way with Prastiti and I believe that the warmth they radiate arises from those long-held connections. 

The ten-piece ensemble oozed a Brazilian vibe, with its flute players and fingerstyle acoustic guitar. Add to this the unmistakable rhythms of Samba and Bossa Nova and the course was set. There was a horn section of trumpet and a tenor saxophone and one of the flute players doubled on clarinet. Behind them was an upright bass, drum kit and percussion and in the darkness, and to one side, a piano. The arrangements were beautifully textured and the harmonies absolutely gorgeous. As well as the instrumental harmonies, there were vocal harmonies contributed by two of the instrumentalists (one being Stokes, who has a fabulous voice – the success of The Beths underscores that). Prastiti composed all of the tunes and arranged most of them. The other credits go to Sinclair who arranged "Prism", Callum Passells who arranged "Bumblebee", and Kenji Iwamitsu-Holdaway who is co-credited for the composition titled "Stars Above and Water Below". 

Chelsea Prastiti is one the most innovative vocalists to appear on the local scene and she is never afraid to take risks or to explore new territory. The rest of her ensemble were: Elizabeth Stokes on trumpet and vocals, Crystal Choi, who appeared last week, this time on piano and vocals; bringing a beautifully voiced minimalism to the proceedings and echoing Tom Jobim’s delicate spidery lines. Roger Manins was on tenor saxophone with fills and some tasteful solos – J Y Lee played an edgy melodic flute (it is not his primary, but he brought expression to an instrument that in the wrong hands can lack it). Beside him was Ben Sinclair (bass guitarist from The Beths), alternating between clarinet and flute, the ever-reliable Adam Tobeck was on the drum kit, with Ron Samsom on percussion. Lastly, and hidden in the shadows was Michael Howell, utilising the voicings and fingerstyle of the Brazilian acoustic guitar. He absolutely nailed those warm pulsing rhythms which fell about us like a warm summer shower.  

Image by John Fenton

Eleven years ago, I began this Jazz blog and one of my first posts was an opinion piece about this era. I looked back at it today for the first time since writing it, and apart from a few missing commas, it stands up. I was worried when I wrote it that it might get something wrong, but a Brazilian musicologist messaged me to thank me for it. Anyone wanting to gain an additional sense of this era could follow the link to my original post. It is an opinion piece, but it could serve as a springboard to more authoritative, Brazilian-sourced information. https://jazzlocal32.com/2011/06/07/wave-antonio-carlos-jobim/

Radio 13 appreciates our partnership with John Fenton. Check out his other writings and reviews at jazzlocal32.com

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Written By: John Fenton John Fenton was educated by books and bohemians; the equivalent of being raised by wolves. His interests: jazz, poetry, philosophy, literature & the visual arts. He is a jazz journalist, music blogger, Gonzo journalist, guerrilla commentator & social activist. He lives in Auckland, is married, and wrangles several cats. His long running blog is https://jazzlocal32.com/