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Saxophonist Berta Moreno Seeks Hope and Celebrates Community on 'Tumaini'

Berta Moreno Image Courtesy of the Artist
Courtesy of the Artist
Berta Moreno's sophomore release is a collection of eight compositions chronicling her time in Kawangware, Kenya.

Saxophonist and composer Berta Moreno is a storyteller. Her new recording, Tumaini, is a narrative shared through eight original compositions based on a pre-pandemic experience and adventure performing for and teaching children at the Little Ray of Hope School in Kawangware, Kenya. Members of the community there struggle to maintain even the most basic needs, but Moreno found a tenacity and togetherness that greatly inspired her.

"There was brotherhood and sisterhood, and even if they have [very little] they share everything," Moreno says. "The people there are to be honored. They are amazing."

WBGO's Let Me Tell You 'Bout It w/Berta Moreno

In crafting a special musical blend to commemorate her life-changing residency in Kenya, Moreno's compositions on Tumaini — Swahili for "hope" — combines soul with straight-ahead improvisation and traditional East African rhythms. One notable sonic addition happens in the front line as vocalist Alana Sinkey from Guinea-Bissau doubles melodies throughout the project with Moreno's saxophone.This new brew jumps straight out of the speakers on the album's first song, "Karibu," which injects a strong dose of the blues during the solo section where Moreno and the group's pianist, Manuel Valera, shine brightly on their respective instruments.

"Once I had the whole tune written, I needed to put in chord changes for improvisation, and I suddenly thought, 'Let's [play some] blues, '" Moreno said. "It gave it this sense of power, community and going through challenges with a smile on your face. I thought it was perfect."

Moreno most skillfully navigates groove through odd-meter rhythms on another ear-catching composition "Mandhari II."

"That song is based on my experience being in the Savannah in Kenya, and I realized how much of a deep connection [the people] have with Mother Earth," she explained. Moreno captures the raw energy of the landscape and its citizens with a circular rhythmic ostinato that defines the piece while the solo section allows for some of her and pianist Valera's most lyrical playing on the album.

As a superlative composer and soloist, Moreno, who grew up in Madrid, Spain, toured Europe regularly as a leader. Her debut recording, Little Steps, was awarded the Global Music Awards Gold Medal for "Best Jazz Album" in 2018. After moving to New York in 2014, Moreno was playing many area venues before the pandemic in a variety of groups. Rather than be confined to a singular, stylistic focus, going forward, she wants to embrace different expressions in her ultimate quest to tell stories through music.

"I don't want to lock myself in a box," Moreno said. "I'm going to think about what project is next, and what story is coming next and [focus on] how I can best tell that story and use everything that I have around me to make it happen. "

Greg Bryant has been a longtime curator of improvisational music. At the age of 3 in his hometown of Nashville, Tennessee, he was borrowing his father’s records and spinning them on his Fisher Price turntable. Taking in diverse sounds of artistry from Miles Davis, Les McCann, James Brown, Weather Report and Jimi Hendrix gave shape to Greg's musical foundation and started him on a path of nonstop exploration.