Subway Series

Three-year old Pocahontas Cagle knows she is a star. When asked to name her favorite part of her band’s Christmas show, she replies, without hesitation, “My song!” and begins to belt it out in a voice at least four times her age: “If I were a shepherd, I’d give him a lamb. . . . ”

Only the most flint-hearted Scrooge McDuck could fail to be charmed by the Cagle Family. With the blessing of the MTA’s Music Under New York program, the Cagles last month presented their annual pageant in most of Manhattan’s key subway nodes (Union Square, Grand Central, Times Square). This year’s edition featured a set, costumes, and choreography of their own construction, ma Melody and pa Monte on keybs, and all eight Cagle sibs, from Susan (age 20) on lead guitar to Frankie (eight) on timbales and Richie (six) on cowbell and rhythm sticks (and, of course, Pocahontas’s solo). The band have resumed their mostly-originals set (including their hip-hop number “Dump the Dirty Language”) and three-to-four-gig-per-week schedule for January before they head out on a Caribbean tour.

The Cagles have been performing their homemade mix of calypso, r&b, and church music in the New York City subways off and on for about 10 years, with occasional breaks for tours of Europe and the Americas. They’ve got a solid backbeat (courtesy the crisp bass playing of Janina, 17, and drumming of Jesse, 15, and Caroline, 13) that supports loose harmonies in a way that’s more Danielson than Jackson or Partridge. Melody home-schools the kids in the family’s Jersey City apartment through a Christian correspondence course, and shops the family to majors. “We’re trying to do a film with Warner Brothers,” she says. “We just rejected a sitcom script they sent us. We’ve also spoken to Disney. They wanted Ivan [11, bongo, drums] and Caroline to be in The Lion King, but we turned them down.”

“I’d rather play music than just act,” Ivan claims. Caroline agrees. “It’s really cool to perform in these surroundings,” she says. Who needs to be on Broadway when you can be under it? —Josh Goldfein

Houses of the Holy

The first time I covered Tommy Flanagan in these pages as a 21-year-old intern, I nearly blew the interview when I mispronounced his name; Flanagan’s indefatigable manager/wife had to wonder if the boy asking for Mr. Fla-nay-gan was up to the job. She could hardly blame me. Not only was I struck with the kind of awe that apprehended Fats Waller when he halted a show in midstream at the sight of Art Tatum (“God is in the house,” Waller gasped), but Flanagan also knew something about surviving early blunders. My first knowledge of Flanagan was as the guy who flubbed the solo on Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” because he was uninformed of the song’s breakneck tempo in a one-take-only classic moment in cringe. But I soon discovered that he’d been fronting the most agile, supple, and empathic piano trio since the death of Bill Evans. After drifting away from Ella Fitzgerald’s shadow, he’d become the living exemplar of dynamic pianism.

I’ve become a Flanagan regular in the six years that followed our inauspicious introduction, yet I was concerned that the recent replacement of lilting drummer Lewis Nash with the more heavy-handed Albert “Tootie” Heath (the bridesmaid of the MJQ) and an illness that laid Flanagan low during a planned 70th-birthday concert would mar his inimitable melodic and timbral precision. The last Flanagan show I’d caught in the fall reminded me of an old Irish expression: Even when sex isn’t good, it’s still pretty good. Blissfully, Flanagan was again in optimal form on the opening night of a two-week stint at the Jazz Standard. Heath lightened his attack to make room for Flanagan’s lyrical dialectics—so melodic and deliberate that they functioned as legitimate countermelodies to tunes like “The Way You Look Tonight” and “Liza.” With Flanagan’s restored chops and the trio’s restored interplay, Heath was making room for more than just a superb pianist: God was back in the house. —David Yaffe

The Comfort of Being Sad

“We don’t want to leave you feeling sad,” Cristina Branco said, winking at her audience at the Kaye Playhouse last Friday. But as a star of fado, the dramatic Portuguese music with the emotional pitch of tango, she should know better. Fado is all about showing off just how sad you can be. For Branco, a 28-year-old Portuguese fadista touted as the successor to the great Amália Rodrigues, sad can be reduced to a distracting staginess that undercuts the wonderful suppleness of her voice, a fluency particularly in evidence on the fast-paced fados known as corridos. A coquettish bit of stage patter, for example, had Branco confessing that she didn’t know the words to the encore, so could the audience help by singing the tune with her? Such stunts seem more Celine than Amália, but Branco’s range and timbre have uncanny similarity to the powerhouse fadista who died in 1999, though she lacks Rodrigues’s emotional weight and dissonance. Instead Branco follows the lilting, ethereal vocal lines of Teresa Salgueiro of the fado-influenced group Madredeus. Like Salgueiro, Branco usually sings new fados, most written by the ubiquitous Custódio Castelo, who, with two other guitarists, accompanied her on Friday. His fados have the swift, minor-key melancholy of a Piazzola tango rearranged for the three-minute fado form.

When not singing, Branco is full of the faux-philosophical pronouncements that new fado seems to embrace as a replacement for the messy anguish heard in so many Lisbon—and, for that matter, Newark—fado houses: She told the audience that Castelo wrote “Toada em Realejo” “to capture the duality of happiness and sadness.” Which is to say the duality of hearing Branco sing and Branco relay goofy “truths” about fado. —Angela Starita

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