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Review: 1995 Is Here...Reviews of Recent Releases and Reissues

by George De Stefano

Mexican pop, merengue, and bland salsa romantica may dominate the Latin charts, but not to worry: the New Year has also brought some goodies for the clavé-craving consumer. There are two re-releases of vintage salsa, a new release in the classic vein, a promising debut by an expatriate Cubana, and an ambitious tour de force from a ranking salsero de hoy.

Gilberto Santa Rosa has pulled another fast one. After his terrific 1992 Tito Rodriguez tribute, A Dos Tiempos de un Tiempo, the Puerto Rican sonero retrenched with last year's forgettable Nací Aqui. Now he's followed up with De Cara al Viento, the best recording of his career.

Like A Dos Tiempos, his new one unfolds like a fully conceptualized project, not just a collection of songs. The effect is, in fact, cinematic. The opening track, Juan Luis Guerra's "Te Propongo," is the establishing shot, with the orchestra's swelling strings evoking a mood of lush romanticism. The theme, of course, is love — its joys, sorrows, and complications, with Gilberto in his familiar role as the open hearted, easily wounded but ever-ardent suitor.

Santa Rosa, as producer and performer, has astutely blended his pop instincts with his more adventurous inclinations. He serves up immediately accessible, catchy dance numbers, but he's also gone outside his usual stable of slick songscribes for material by Guerra, Juan Formell of Los Van Van, and Luis Enrique (whose six-minute plus "Me Duele Querete" is a high point). Some numbers follow a simple, radio-friendly verse/coro form, but others are much more varied in structure and arrangement.

The singer himself has never sounded better — he's perfected that trademark soulful ache but he also delivers more of the rhythmic punch he usually reserves for his live shows. There's some knockout sonerismo here: his fiery exchanges with the great coroistas Gino Ramirez and Mario Vierra galvanize "Ella," "Me Quiere Enamorarme," and, most spectacularly, "En La Palma de mi Mano."

Like a film, De Cara al Viento returns to where it started, with our hero again offering a declaration of love. But whereas "Te Propongo" celebrated the mundane pleasures of sharing a pizza and going to the movies, "Te Amaré", the closer, makes a grander promise of undying love and passion of near-cosmic proportions. Santa Rosa — a chubby, sometimes ungainly performer who projects little charisma or sexuality on stage — might seem an unlikely vehicle for such florid sentiment. But he's utterly convincing on this, his most ambitious effort, and one that positions him to snatch that "el rey de los soneros" crown right off Oscar de Leon's shiny pate.

Lucrecia Pérez, expatriate Cuban singer and pianist, has abundant talent, superstar good looks, and an engaging new recording, Me Debes un Beso. Trained in the European classical tradition — she made her rep in Havana as a Bartok interpreter — Pérez also pursued a parallel career in Afro-Cuban music. She sang and played keyboards in a late incarnation of Orquesta Anacaona, the venerable women's band, and had several major salsa hits in Cuba, including the title track. She moved to Spain in the early '90s, where she now lives and records.

Pérez's voice, a supple alto, conveys exuberance and a playful sensuality but not much emotional depth. (The sunny lightness of her style, in fact, sounds more Brazilian than Cuban.) Her orchestra keeps it light, too, laying down enticing dance grooves but eschewing improvisatory pyrotechnics. Still, the infectious high spirits of Me Debes un Beso are hard to resist. And word has it that Pérez is a sexy dynamo onstage, so this recording probably only hints at what she's capable of.

We all know what Al Santiago can do, don't we? The veteran producer, whose credits comprise a huge chunk of the history of Afro-Cuban music, scores again with Orchestra Pueblo's Ponce. There are actually two bands here, with different personnel, both led by Victor Aviles (bass, coros) and Danny "Flamboyan" Martinez (cuatro, bass, coros). This is Puerto Rican salsa, bien autentica, with a lot more on its mind than romance. There's an homage to Héctor Lavoe ("Soy Cantante") — and one to Rubén Blades ("Ruben '94") that salutes the singer, who last year ran unsuccessfully for the presidency of Panama, for his political commitment.

Ponce features two fine vocalists, Johnny "Magnifico" Gonzalez, who approximates Héctor Lavoe's style without sounding like a clone of the late sonero, and Adriana Zavala, who's especially appealing on "Esta Melodia" and "Pueblito Natal." Since this is a Puerto Rican roots affair there's plenty of "Flamboyan"'s cuatro, which suits me just fine. And at nearly 70 minutes long, it's a generous one, too. There are two versions of the title track, which was co-written by Santiago and the Puerto Rican pianist/composer Noro Morales, and yet another version, and a good one, of one of the most-recorded Cuban songs, Miguel Matamoros' "Son de la Loma."

If the name Salsoul conjures memories of '70s disco ("do the hustle!") rather than that decade's salsa explosion, two reissues on that label, now owned by an outfit called Bethlehem Records, may signal a new corporate image for the '90s.

Increible was the fourth album by Conjunto Libre, the ensemble led by master percussionist Manny Oquendo. This stellar outfit featured los hermanos Gonzalez, bassist Andy and conguero/trumpeter Jerry (co-founders of the exploratory Latin jazz band Fort Apache), trombonist Papo Vasquez, and flautist Dave Valentin.

What you get is straight-ahead salsa played by musicians who boast solid jazz chops. It's the sound of unsullied integrity, imbued with a powerful physicality and funky elegance. As a charanga fan I'm especially partial to "Goza la Vida," but every track is strong, so much so that you can (almost) forgive the paltry 38-minute playing time (the original LP length).

Saoco, from New York City, was on the verge of fame in the late '70s; the band played Madison Square Garden and was attracting a following with its unique urban tipico sound. But conflicts between the two leaders, bassist/tres player William Millan and singer/songwriter/conguero Henry Fiol (profiled in Descarga Newsletter #7), broke up a promising aggregation.

Fiol, in his subsequent solo career, has singlemindedly pursued the musical direction laid out on the 20-year-old tracks that comprise Siempre Seré Guajiro— classic punto Cubano, intensified by the driving urban rhythms of black Cuban music. Fiol's distinctive vocal style — subtle, unforced, yet passionate — was already formed at the time of these sessions, when he was in his mid-twenties. Produced by Millan, Fiol, and Al Santiago, Siempre Seré Guajiro was a fine effort by an unfortunately short lived band, and its reissue is welcome, if overdue.

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