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Rubén Blades: Salswing!

Jim Trageser BY

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Rubén Blades: Salswing!
In the liner notes to this recording, veteran Latin pop singer Rubén Blades explains that Salswing! is meant as a demonstrative statement: About his own ability to grow beyond being a Panamanian singer, to show that musicians can speak to an audience beyond their own nationality, and to celebrate the stellar chops of the Roberto Delgado Orquesta backing him.

Regardless of the purpose behind these sessions, the reality is that this is one of the best big band swing albums in recent memory. Blades and Delgado have found a sweet spot between the rock-infused retro-swing of recent vintage (think Brian Setzer, Cherry Poppin' Daddies) and the passive concert environment of most jazz-oriented big bands (Gordon Goodwin, Toshiko Akiyoshi). Instead, we get a full album of hard-charging, dance-ready big band jazz and salsa.

And Delgado's outfit is solid—they play with the kind of relaxed confidence that only comes from playing night after night together. Not since Doc Severinson was backing Johnny Carson on "The Tonight Show" have we heard a swing band with this combination of cockiness and chops. Matt Catingub's Waikiki combo Big Kahuna and the Copa Cat Pack was about the closest, but that project too often veered into Polynesian cocktail-hour shtick.

Of course, neither of those bands had a singer of the caliber of Blades (although the Copa Cat Pack did back Rosemary Clooney on her final recording, in 2001). And if Blades' background is more in salsa, in the 1990s he did participate in several of Kip Hanrahan's jazz and Latin projects—he was one of Hanrahan's go-to vocalists, along with Sting and Jack Bruce.

While Blades contributes five compositions to "Salswing," the three tracks that will inevitably be used as a measuring stick are the interpretations of Swing Era standards: "Pennies From Heaven," "Watch What Happens" and "The Way You Look Tonight."

On all three, Blades, Delgado and company just kill it. Delgado's arrangement of "Watch What Happens" doesn't stray too far from the arrangement on Count Basie's album On the Road (Pablo, 1981). But Blades' vocal approach is far different from the jazz-infused one Dennis Rowland brought to the Basie recording, with Blades sounding more like Buddy Greco or a late-in-life James Darren, during his crooner period. Blades is in full Vegas showroom mode here—hiding just half-a-beat off the song's meter, and singing in a near-conversational tone.

"The Way You Look Tonight" is approached along the lines of Nelson Riddle's classic arrangement for Frank Sinatra. While Blades hews faithfully to the arrangement in his vocals, his phrasing and tonality are nothing like Sinatra's—which presents new sides to the song, and the arrangement, giving it a fresh appeal.

Where those two songs borrow heavily from well-known renditions, "Pennies From Heaven" comes out of the gate in a wholly original vein—far more up-tempo than most arrangements, with Blades in a finger-snapping Vegas crooner mode.

A lesser-known cover, "Mambo Gil," by Gili Lopez, could have come out of a time machine—it's arrangement and execution perfectly capturing the feeling of 1950s' Latin big bands. Paula C," penned by Blades, starts the album in a strong Latin vein: to American ears, maybe not too far from what Tito Gomez or Desi Arnaz were doing in Cuba in the 1940s and 1950s. But with its vibes and strings in its opening measures, it also hearkens to post-war cocktail music before Blades' vocal centers the performance. Co-written with Jeremy Bosch, "Ya No Me Duele" is a gorgeous ballad, with Blades softening his vocal and coupling it to Juan Berna's lovely piano. "Contrabando," another Blades original, was first recorded by Blades on his 1988 release, "Antecedente." The arrangement here is slowed down a touch, and of course, room for a few instrumental solos is carved out.

Blades' final contribution, "Tambo," the closing song, was originally recorded by Pete Rodriguez in 1978, appearing as the B side of a single. It gets full salsa big band treatment here, and is perhaps the most purely dance track on the album.

With its seamless blending of jazz, Panamanian and other Latin threads, Salswing recalls the heady days of the Big Band Era—when not just American bands adopted 12-16 piece combos, but similarly sized and configured outfits were playing ballrooms, dance halls and nightclubs in cities across the globe: Big bands were playing chanson for dancing couples in Paris, tango in Montevideo and Buenos Aires, boleros and guarachas in Havana. The Big Band Era was more than swing—it was the sound of a global generation. And on Salswing! Blades and Delgada capture about as broad a swath of Big Band Era music as any band yet assembled.

Track Listing

Paula C; Pennies from Heaven; Mambo Gil; Ya No Me Duele; Watch What Happens; Cobarde; Do I Hear Four?; Canto Niche; The Way You Look Tonight; Contrabando; Tambó

Personnel

Rubén Blades: voice / vocals; Roberto Delgado: composer/conductor; Ademir Berrocal: congas; Juan Berna: piano; Raul Rivera: bongos; Carlos Perez Bido: drums; Juan Carlos Lopez: trumpet; Alejandro Castillo: trumpet; Francisco Del Vecchio: trombone; Avenicio Nunez: trombone; Carlos Ubarte: flute; Carlos Agrazal: saxophone, alto; Ivan Navarro: saxophone, tenor; Luis Carlos Perez: saxophone, tenor.

Album information

Title: Salswing! | Year Released: 2021 | Record Label: Self Produced

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