Skip to content

Posts from the ‘Latin music’ Category

The art of the bolero

When someone mentions the bolero, most of us probably think of the hypnotic Ravel piece in slow three-quarter time used in the 1979 Hollywood comedy 10 as a signifier for sex and at the 1984 Winter Olympics by the ice-dancing champions Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean. That kind of bolero was hybridised from Spanish dances and turned into art music. The other type of bolero was the sort that turned up in Cuba in the late 19th century, in the form of romantic ballads whose popularity spread throughout Latin America.

As a boy growing up in a housing project in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón heard boleros sung by the likes of Arsenio Rodriguez, La Lupe, Benny Moré and Sylvia Rexach: like French chanson, it was a music that transcended generations. His latest album, titled El Arte del Bolero, is a series of duets with the pianist Luis Perdomo — a member of his regular quartet — on the songs he heard back then, delivered with respect, understanding and affection.

Zenón, who was born in 1976, learnt the saxophone from the age of 10 and eventually won a place at a local music school. At 20 he left home with a scholarship to study at Berklee College in Boston, where he fell in with some interesting contemporaries from around the world. Since then he has become widely renowned not just as a wonderful improviser but as a composer, a bandleader, and a distinguished educator. For almost 10 years he has run a project called Caravana Cultural, taking free jazz concerts to young audiences and musicians in Puerto Rico’s rural areas. Grammy nominations and fellowships from the Guggenheim and MacArthur foundations have come his way.

I was first made aware of his playing on Not in Our Name by Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra and several albums by the SFJAZZ Collective, an all-star band whose shifting personnel has featured the likes of Joshua Redman, Bobby Hutcherson, Mark Turner and Nicholas Payton. He is also a member of Guillermo Klein’s Los Guachos. In 2015 I invited him to play at Jazzfest Berlin with his quartet, a long-established line-up completed by Perdomo, the Austrian bassist Hans Glawischnig and the drummer Henry Cole, sharing the bill with Keith Tippett’s Octet. Their repertoire included some of the pieces from a recent album, Identities Are Changeable, in which the four-piece was augmented to become a big band and blended with the voices of immigrants; the music retained its potency in the reduced format.

Zenón is a wonderful jazz improviser, clearly influenced by Charlie Parker but with a voice of his own — a warm, fibrous tone throughout the registers with phrasing as elegant at fast tempos as on ballads. El Arte del Bolero is the latest of several albums in which he examines the music of his heritage, but it isn’t a Latin album as such: it’s a record of thoughtful, beautifully balanced explorations with the occasional fleeting venture into ‘outside’ flurries (on Rexach’s “Alma Adentro”, which he first recorded several years ago with an ensemble arranged by Klein) and bebop (Bobby Capó’s “Juguete”, from the repertoire of Cheo Feliciano).

Recorded (without an audience) at the Jazz Gallery in New York last September, this is music of great intimacy, the saxophone so close-miked that you can sometimes hear the soft slap of the pads, the two musicians working as one to create music that combines passion and sophistication in perfect proportions. I can imagine it becoming one of those albums that you keep close at hand, ready for those times when all you want is to hear something beautiful.

* Released via the Miel Music label, Miguel Zenón’s El Arte del Bolero is available on Bandcamp: The photograph of Zenón was taken by Camille Blake on stage at the Haus der Berliner Festspiele in 2015.

Homage to Celia

Celia Cruz

Celia Cruz was to Latin music as Aretha Franklin was to soul, Cesaria Evora to fado**, Mahalia Jackson to gospel and Bessie Smith to the blues. She was the queen. On the two occasions I saw her, I was left in no doubt of that. The first was in 1976, when she appeared at the Lyceum with the Fania All Stars, alongside Johnny Pacheco and Ray Barretto. The second was 10 years later, when she arrived at Hammersmith Palais on a sultry July night with Tito Puente’s eight-piece band, took the stage in a dress covered with black, silver and hot red sequins, and set the place on fire. Here’s what I wrote in The Times the next day:

“Most of her songs are constructed according to a formula that gets the verse out of the way before concentrating on the sequence in which the singer improvises over a mesmerising two-chord vamp. It is there, in the real heart of the music, as the polyrhythms of congas, bongos and timbales interlock with the fluid and deceptively simple stroll of the bass guitar, that Celia Cruz proves her greatness. The vamp section of the mid-tempo ‘Bemba Colora’ turned into a roller-coaster of successive crescendos and she shouted, chattered and crooned, the audience hardly needing her encouragement to chant the responses while attempting to dance in the sweaty crush at the foot of the stage. Her own dancing, involving brief bouts of spasms and convulsions that defined the Latin ability to retain control while discarding inhibitions, provided a further incitement to displays of ecstatic abandon.”

I can still hear that “Bemba Colora”: it went on for a very long time and would still be going on now, if those of us who were there had been given a vote on the matter. It was a night when you wished you’d been born Latin, and one of the dozen most memorable gigs I can remember.

Inevitably, “Bemba Colora” is among the 10 songs associated with Cruz chosen by Angélique Kidjo, the great Beninese singer, for her new album, titled Celia. Or, as one might put it, this is Angélique Kpasseloko Hinto Hounsinou Kandjo Manta Zogbin Kidjo paying tribute to Úrsula Hilaria Celia de la Caridad Cruz Alfonso.

It’s no surprise that Kidjo and her producer, David Donatien, approached the project from an original perspective, choosing to take the songs on a journey back to Africa. This isn’t a salsa album: it’s an album of the African diaspora, bringing sounds and inflections from all over the continent to bear in a very organic and contemporary way. The musicians involved include Tony Allen, the great Afro-beat drummer, who partners the bassist Meshell Ndegeocello on several tracks, and the members of London’s Sons of Kemet, who provide the basis for a fine reading of “Bemba Colora”. Shabaka Hutchings, their tenor saxophonist, and Theon Cross, their tuba-player, contribute to several other tracks.

The one that really caught my ear is “Sahara”, a ballad of grand yearning recorded by Cruz in 1952. Written by Eligio Varela Mora, it’s given full value by Kidjo’s majestic delivery, languid but intense, over a beautiful arrangement featuring the unhurried ticking of Donatien’s percussion, the colourations of Xavier Tribolet’s piano and organ and Clément Petit’s overdubbed cellos, a kind of desert chamber ensemble. Every track has something interesting to offer, but this is where the project most fully realises its potential, both as a tribute and as a free-standing creation. Like that “Bemba Colora” in Hammersmith more than 30 years ago, it casts a spell you want never to end.

* Angélique Kidjo’s Celia is out now on the Verve label.

** See Vitor Fragoso’s comment.

Que Vola?


It’s so cold this morning that I’m typing this with gloves on (fingerless ones, knitted by my daughter, since you ask). But all the ambiant heat I need is being provided by the debut CD from a Franco-Cuban band called Que Vola?, who stir new and inspiring life into an old formula.

The Cuban influence on jazz has been coming and going for the best part of a century, getting its biggest boost in the 1940s, when the immortal conguero Chano Pozo joined the Dizzy Gillespie big band. The story of Que Vola? — literally, “what flies?”, or “wha’ happen?” in the vernacular — began in 2012, when the trombonist Fidel Fourneyron visited Havana and was seized by a desire to blend jazz horns with the deep rhythms he was hearing in clubs.

Back in Paris, he added three Cuban percussionists — Adonis Panter Calderón, Ramón Tamayo Martínez and Barbara Crespo Richard — to an assembly of local musicians: Aymeric Avice (trumpet), Hugues Mayot and Benjamin Dousteyssier (saxophones), Bruno Ruder (electric piano), Thibaud Soulas (double bass) and Elie Duris (drums). As I say, it’s not a particularly new idea, but Fourneyron has come up with a different sound, a new set of textures and balances, as you can hear here and here. The effect is something akin to Grounation, the classic album in which Count Ossie and the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari fused nyabinghi rhythms with post-bop jazz soloists 45 years ago.

What makes Fourneyron’s approach different from most earlier Latin-jazz fusions, I think, is that he accepts the Cuban rhythms at their most complex and sophisticated. He doesn’t try to water them down for a popular audience, even one familiar with salsa, but matches them to the complexity and sophistication of the contemporary jazz musician. What, really, could be closer to the spirit of Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo?

* Que Vola? is released on January 25 on the Nø Førmat label. The band will appear at EartH (Evolutionary Arts Hackney) in Stoke Newington on April 10, with Oumou Sangaré and Gérald Toto.

Cuba Si!

Ruben GonzalezDonald Trump’s attempt to turn the United States back into the country once shaped by Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover took another step today when he signed a document reversing Barack Obama’s rapprochement with Cuba. There’s probably not much most of us can do about that, except maybe book a holiday there to replace the Americans who will no longer be able to travel to the island so easily, but it’s a good excuse to mention the reissue in expanded form of Introducing… Rubén González, one of the finest albums to come out of the Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon 20 years ago.

González was 77 years old when he made the album in Havana’s Egrem Studios in 1996 at the behest of Nick Gold, the World Circuit producer, yet his playing appeared to have lost none of its zest, clarity and inventiveness from the days when he played in the bands of Arsenio Rodriguez in the 1940s, René Álvarez in the ’50s and Enrique Jorrín in the ’60s. With a group including the bassist “Cachaito” López and the trumpeter “Guajiro” Mirabal, he sparkled through cha-chas, boleros, guarachas and other forms with great elegance and poise. Maybe it doesn’t have the crackly patina of old recordings from pre-revolutionary Havana, but it’s one of the most important Cuban albums of modern times, and — now with one extra track and three others expanded through the restoration of edited passages — it deserves to be a cornerstone of any respectable collection.

* Introducing… Rubén González is reissued by World Circuit on vinyl and CD on June 16. The photograph of González is from the album insert and was taken by Cristina Piza.

Gato Barbieri 1932-2016

Gato Barbieri 2At some point in his career, Leandro “Gato” Barbieri became a sound. A great sound, for sure, its hoarse urgency bursting with Latin passion, but he learnt that he needed to do little more than apply it to the theme he wrote in 1972 for Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris to satisfy his large core audience.

Maybe that film was the watershed. He had arrived in New York from Buenos Aires in the mid-’60s as an unknown tenor saxophonist and plunged straight into the maelstrom of the avant-garde, bringing a voice as distinctive as that of another saxophone incomer, John Tchicai. Barbieri was heavily featured on Don Cherry’s first two brilliant albums for Blue Note, Complete Communion and Symphony for the Improvisers, quickly followed by his debut as a leader, In Search of the Mystery, recorded for ESP Disk’ with a quartet including the cellist Calo Scott. He was a featured soloist on Michael Mantler’s “Communications #8″from the seminal Jazz Composers Orchestra double-album in 1968, which meant equal billing with Cherry, Cecil Taylor, Pharaoh Sanders, Roswell Rudd and Larry Coryell. The following year he was a prominent contributor to Charlie Haden’s first Liberation Music Orchestra album, and was featured on Escalator Over the Hill, the epic “chronotransduction” by Carla Bley and Paul Haines, released in 1971.

He made an impression on all of them, with a powerfully vocalised tone and the sort of confident delivery necessary to hold his own in such strong company. Decades later we could hear how he sounded stretching out in a club environment back in 1966 on recordings made at the Café Montmartre in Copenhagen, featuring Cherry’s quintet with Karl Berger on vibes, Bo Stief on bass and Aldo Romano on drums, released in three volumes by the renascent ESP between 2007-09.

The special pungency of his playing also derived, consciously or not in the listener’s mind, from the knowledge of his South American background: this seemed to be the sound of liberation movements across the continent. Barbieri strengthened the connection with tune titles such as “Tupac Amaru”, named after the Inca leader murdered by the Spanish invaders and to be found on a 1971 Flying Dutchman album called Fenix, reissued a couple of years ago on BGP, and “Viva Emiliano Zapata”, from an excellent biggish-band album of the same name, released on Impulse in 1974.

I saw him live just once, at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1971, in a performance later released on Flying Dutchman as El Pampero, with Lonnie Liston Smith on keyboards, Chuck Rainey on bass guitar, Bernard Purdie on drums, and Nana Vasconcelos and Sonny Morgan on percussion. (Rainey and Purdie were present at the festival as members of King Curtis’s band, but played with several other artists.) It was a powerful set, but for me it lacked the profundity of the work he’d done with the free-formers.

A year later Last Tango was making him famous, and he took the fork in the road that leads to a more radio-friendly aesthetic. But then in 1982 I saw a film destined to be much less successful, Matthew Chapman’s Strangers Kiss, which starred Peter Coyote and Victoria Tennant and a Barbieri soundtrack that I liked much better. The music had the familiar backstreet-tango-bar vibe, but it felt as though it was playing a more organic part in the movie. It seems to have disappeared so completely that I might have imagined it.

He died on Saturday, aged 83. If you go to, you’ll find a link to clips from his most recent album, New York Meeting, a quartet session recorded five years ago in a straight-ahead style. There had been health problems, but that sound was still there.

* The photograph of Gato Barbieri was taken by Francis Wolff at Don Cherry’s Complete Communion session on Christmas Eve, 1965. There’s another one from the same occasion in The Blue Note Years: The Jazz Photography of Francis Wolff, published by Rizzoli in 1995.

Brooklyn Latino

PelirojaOut of the blue, a package arrived from Brooklyn the other day, accompanied by a note from Jacob Plasse, the guiding spirit of Chulo Records, an independent label operating under the rubric “New York Latin Soul”. The three discs he sent — by Peliroja, Melaza and Los Hacheros — reminded me that the Latino vitamin has been missing from my musical diet this winter.

They’re all good and worth investigating for the way they update Latin styles, but Peliroja’s Injusticia turned out to be the one that’s been almost impossible to prise out of the CD player. The heart of the group, its songwriters, are the lead singer Jainardo Batista, the keyboardist Mike Eckroth, and Plasse, who plays guitar and produced the album. The remainder of the core band are bassist Nick Movshon, baritone saxophonist Morgan Price, Carlos Padron on congas, timbales and other percussion. Plenty of others are involved, the name most swiftly catching my eye being that of the drummer Homer Steinweiss, familiar from his work with the brilliant Dap-Kings, Brooklyn’s kings of the kind of retro-soul that doesn’t sound retro at all (and with whom Movshon has also played).

On the label’s website, Plasse says that the sound of the band, some of whose members have played together since their schooldays, is inspired by “the sounds of Ethiopia, Dominican Republic, Cuba and the Congo”. Peliroja play an updated, more globalised version of the kind of stuff I used to love from Hector Lavoe, Larry Harlow and Willie Colon, and the lead-off track, “Bohemio”, is a very fine example of their application of 21st century energy to a classically structured salsa groove. “Honor Enjendrade” tips its hat to Africa and “La Fobia” would bring any club in the world to the boil as the full band thunders back in after the breakdown.

If those tracks gives a hint of the creativity Eckroth brings to the arrangements, a gorgeous ballad called “Se Equivoco” realises all the potential: the gruff baritone solo, a swooning dirge-dance from the guest strings, the steady sway of the bass, the slow ticking of the percussion and Batista’s expressive vocal make it a track I know I’ll be listening to for many years to come.

* The photograph is from the cover of Peliroja’s album. The website is

A staircase on 86th St


Ray Barretto’s “El Watusi” was one of my favourite 45s of 1963, a sudden blast of exoticism amid the green shoots of Mersey Beat and New Wave R&B (as the emergent soul music was briefly known). Hispanic voices harangued each other over a basic Latin piano vamp and strategic handclaps. Eventually the rest of the band joined in: riffing violins, jaunty flute, the scrape of a guiro, a rattle of timbales and, of course, Barretto’s congas. There was no song, no lead vocal. The record faded out with the music stripped back again to piano and handclaps and the verbal exchanges still in full spate. I hadn’t a clue what the voices were saying, but it didn’t matter. To a 16-year-old in England it represented a slice of Spanish Harlem street life, two and a half minutes of riveting authenticity.

It was released in the UK on the Columbia label, EMI having picked up the rights via a deal with Roulette, on whose Tico imprint it was issued in the US, and it became an enduring Mod favourite. Roulette was Morris Levy’s company, and Tico was run by George Goldner. Both men were notorious for their connections, but between them they were responsible for a fair proportion of the great pop music that came out of New York in the pre-Beatles era. Teddy Reig, who had produced Charlie Parker’s Savoy sessions for the equally notorious Herman Lubinsky and Count Basie for Roulette, got the producer’s credit for “El Watusi”, which was recorded in October 1962 in the ballroom of New York’s Riverside Plaza Hotel, a very ornate bulding on West 73rd Street which had originally been a Masonic club. Now the record has been very nicely reissued by the Malanga label on a CD coupling two LPs by Ray Barretto y su Orquesta: Charanga Moderna and La Moderna de Siempre, both recorded in the same year and at the same venue.

This gives me an excuse to write about the first time I saw Barretto in person, at a club called the Corso at 205 East 86th Street, off the corner of 3rd Avenue, half a dozen blocks below East Harlem, also known as Spanish Harlem, or El Barrio. From 1970 to 1985, a period encompassing the start and the flowering of the salsa era, the Corso was perhaps New York’s principal rendezvous for lovers of Latin music, as the Palladium had been in the 1960s. Its owner, a restaurateur and club owner named Tony Raimone, had bought it in 1968 and was soon persuaded by Pete Bonet, one of Barretto’s singers (and one of the voices on “El Watusi”), to institute a musical policy appealing to the city’s Cuban and Puerto Rican expatriates.

It was a great success. By the time I got there in 1974 the club — up a steep flight of steps, above a restaurant — was featuring three bands nightly, five nights a week, and was packed with dancers from the Latin community, the sort of people who hadn’t needed to take lessons in order to dance to a clave rhythm.

I was in New York on assignment from Island Records’  Chris Blackwell, who had made a deal with Jerry Masucci of Fania Records, the hot new salsa label. Blackwell wanted me to scope out the possibilities for UK releases and tours. I was there for a week, and just about every night I ended up at the Corso, leaning against the long bar at the back of the dance floor and absorbing some wonderful music while marvelling at the fluency and inventiveness of the dancers, young and old. Among the bands I saw there were that of the young pianist Larry Harlow and two excellent charanga outfits, Tipica ’73 and Tipica Ideal. Among the clearest memories is that of one of the speciality acts who performed between the sets: a tall, lithe woman wearing a top-to-toe catsuit in black lace who performed sinuous dance routines in partnership with what I think was a  boa constrictor, at least 10ft long. I’m not sure you’d be able to find that sort of entertainment very easily now.

Good times at the Corso came to an end in the spring of 1985, the night the NYPD completed a sting and nabbed Tony Raimone, along with his son and his nephew. Over the preceding months an undercover agent had been buying heroin from them — about $5m of the stuff at street prices — in transactions made at another of Raimone’s establishments, further along 86th St. The final deal took place in the restaurant downstairs from the Corso.  The cops pounced, and that was that. The dancers had to find another home.

I kept the handbill above as a souvenir of a wonderful experience, one we came close to replicating in West London the following year when Hector Lavoe and his brilliant orchestra played a one-off gig at the old Nashville Rooms on North End Road, with the marvellous Professor Jose Torres on piano. It was a sensational night, and a few months later Ray Barretto himself arrived with Celia Cruz, Johnny Pacheco and the rest of the Fania All Stars to play at the Lyceum, a much bigger gig, with Steve Winwood as a special guest.

It would be another 10 years before salsa found its place in UK dance culture. But if you’re browsing a second-hand vinyl store and you see a copy of one of the compilations I put together for Island’s budget-price HELP label at that time, Salsa! and Salsa Live!, don’t hesitate: just snap it up.