Miramar is one of Richmond’s most unlikely, eclectic musical jewels.
The band’s focus is on boleros, varied, intensely emotional songs that play roughly the same role in Latin American music as the blues do in North America.
The sound flows from the intertwining talents of three singular musicians: the close harmonies of singers Laura Ann Singh and Rei Alvarez, and the poetic pianism of Marlysse Simmons. The three have a long association with better-known forms of Latin music. Singh with the Brazilian-centric Quatro na Bossa, Alvarez and Simmons with Salsa powerhouse Bio Ritmo. The poetic boleros of Miramar may be less familiar, but its romantic, rueful intimacy has a universal charm.
A new recording, “Dedication to Sylvia Rexarch” (Barbès Records), is a richly realized tribute to a cultural icon in Puerto Rico who formed the first all-female musical trio there in the 1940s.
“On the island, there is a festival and a museum. Her daughter is a famous actress,” Simmons says about Rexarch, who died in 1961 at the age of 39. “But when I started talking to people outside of that circle, even people who know Latin music, they didn’t know about her.”
Simmons learned about her from Alvarez’s extensive, eclectic record collection, the wellspring for Miramar’s songbook.
“We spent a year on the project,” Simmons says. “Going to Puerto Rico twice, meeting with people who knew her, who played with her. We even called her daughter [Sharon Riley], who is very particular about the way her mother’s music is presented. She was in Miami. We weren’t sure she would talk to us, so we called her on Rei’s mother’s phone so we would have a Puerto Rican number.”
Riley gave her blessing after seeing Miramar’s video of “Tus Pasos.” Shot at Lance Koehler’s colorful Minimum Wage Recording, the film features bassist Cameron Ralston, percussionist Hector Barez, and a lush string section led by Ellen Cockerham Riccio. It’s a lovely, elegant rendition, although Riley suggested they could be “more dramatic.”
From a Richmond perspective, the video is a reminder of the interconnections of the local scene. Koehler is drummer and co-founder of the No BS Brass band. The omnipresent Ralston is the house bassist in Matthew E. White’s Spacebomb house band. Barez is in Bio Ritmo. Riccio is principal second violinist for the Richmond Symphony, the director of guerrilla-traditionalist collaborative Classical Revolution and the wife of Bio Ritmo timbales player Guistino Riccio.
The record also includes three Rexarch songs from previous recording sessions featuring guitarist Kevin Harding and bassist Rusty Farmer.
The recording isn’t quite an all-Richmond affair. It also features the Chicago Tribune’s 2016 musician of the year, Tomeka Reid. The breakout jazz cellist and composer is a classmate and friend from Simmons’ student days at the University of Maryland. Another notable out-of-town addition is Brooklyn-based guitarist Brian Vargas.
“I’ve worked with great guitarists in Richmond, but he is first-generation Puerto Rican, Simmons says. “He grew up with this music, and knows exactly where to put the perfect lick.”
But the heart of the music is the simpatico singing of Alvarez and Singh, set against the intense keyboard artistry of Simmons. The lyrics are almost always delivered in unison. Singh, whose native roots in Appalachian bluegrass and religious music extended by study with samba masters in Brazil, seems effortlessly at ease with the sophisticated melodies of the bolero.
Alvarez is a perfect complement. Born into a musical family, his deep affinity is matched by inborn ability. “He is an amazing musician,” Simmons says. “He has perfect pitch, he hears the harmonies, everything comes so naturally to him.”
Simmons has long been one of the most interesting players on the Richmond scene. In Bio Ritmo, her playing is at once perfect and subtly disruptive, at once embodying the salsa tradition and spinning it in unexpected directions. In Miramar, the keyboards range from classically tinged grand piano to romantically retro organ. It’s a magical combination.
Never more so than in the closing “Como Tu Eres.” The lyrics are a poem by Alvarez and the music credited to the band. Simmons’ piano is dramatically lush. Reid’s cello is prominent. Alvarez and Singh’s vocals break formation and twine around each other, the counterpoint a lovely and surprising effect after so much harmony. And then it is over.
There’s also a bittersweet angle edge to the music. Singh left town a few months ago for the West Coast. Simmons is considering going to graduate school in Brooklyn this fall to study with Latin jazz master Arturo O’Farrell. In the meantime, there is the new album and a tour that includes a concert at Lincoln Center in New York and in Chicago, playing in front of audiences for whom this music needs no introduction. Alvarez will be interviewed on CNN en Espanol on June 17 at 5 p.m.
Miramar plays the Kennedy Center on July 6 and will do a few songs at Quatra Na Bossa’s concert July 22 at VCU's Singleton Center, but there are no firm plans for a full Richmond performance. Simmons wants to present the full experience and that means when Singh is in town, either with Vargas or with strings. With the symphony on summer break and vital players living in widely separated places, it’s hard to get everything to align.
But when they do, there are few groups more achingly beautiful and ideally in-synch than Miramar. S