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Jazzy, rhythmic, sublime

Times Staff Writer

Marta Gomez

“Cantos de Agua Dulce” (Chesky)

*** 1/2

This young artist didn’t discover the music of her native Colombia until she moved to Boston to study jazz at the Berklee College of Music. That immigrant irony has given the world a remarkable new talent that was made in the U.S.A. but inspired by all of the Americas.

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Gomez, who won composing awards and graduated with honors from the prestigious college, started her performing career by singing on the streets of Harvard Square and peddling her first, self-published CD from 2001. Last year, she opened in Boston for acts as varied as Bonnie Raitt and Mercedes Sosa, the Argentine folk singer she calls her idol.

Backed by Argentine musicians she met at the school five years ago, Gomez developed a scintillating style that applies subtle jazz skills to interpret the popular, folkloric music of Latin America. The result is a mix but not a fusion. The tracks on the new album (whose title means “Sweetwater Songs” in English) remain true to native rhythms with poetically percussive names -- lando, zamba, cumbia and son.

Gomez, who started singing as a child in a church choir in Cali, Colombia, has a sublime voice as pure and clear as Andean mountain air. Her music is fluid and serene, made for quiet listening, not for dancing mambo. Its airiness and delicacy are enhanced by the superb recording quality on this audiophile label, a rare gem in Latin music.

The studio perfection also highlights the warmth and intimacy in her vocals. Her lyrics glisten with a simple beauty, exploring traditional themes of family and friends, the love of nature and the yearning for a lost homeland. She also shows good taste in selecting two songs for the CD by other writers, Spain’s musical poet Joan Manuel Serrat and Venezuelan folk legend Simon Diaz, author of the much-covered classic “Caballo Viejo.”

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Anybody who comes here to make music this beautiful should automatically be given citizenship for making our country, and the world, a better place.

*

Miguel makes a ranchera misstep

Luis Miguel

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“Mexico en la Piel” (Warner Music Latina)

**

Mexico’s fair-haired heartthrob enjoyed a tremendous run of hits during the ‘90s with his cosmopolitan versions of Latin American standards. But the classy crooner has cooled off recently as a wave of alt-Latino upstarts, led by Juanes and Shakira, crashed into the Latin pop charts.

Luis Miguel’s last studio album, “33,” passed almost unnoticed both in sales and at the Latin Grammys, where it got just one nomination and won nothing. Quite a plunge from 2000, when the singer’s “Amarte es un Placer” was named album of the year.

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A cynic could say this new collection of ranchera standards, complete with Mexican flag on the back cover, is simply a marketing fallback strategy. When in trouble, appeal to the loyal Mexican buyer, the bulk of the business.

Many of the 13 songs on “Mexico Under the Skin” are timeless chestnuts of the genre, many originally popularized by mariachi greats such as Vicente Fernandez (“De Que Manera Te Olvido”) and Jose Alfredo Jimenez (“Un Mundo Raro”). Here, under the musical direction of veteran Armando Manzanero, the songs are dressed up by busy orchestral arrangements that replace country grittiness with urbane pretensions.

Even the famed Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan, providing backup, can’t muster much mariachi spirit. In the end, the effort seems soulless. Instead of reaching again for nostalgia, Luis Miguel needs to find a new path to put his ample vocal talents and charisma to good use.

*

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A formidable

song stylist

Ana Gabriel

“Tradicional” (Sony Discos)

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*** 1/2

In 1991, the mournful mariachi tunes of this gravel-voiced singer-songwriter seemed to fill the air in Mexico. With 11 of her own compositions on her album “Mi Mexico,” Gabriel appeared poised to become the first female to join the club of top songwriters in Mexican country music.

That promise remains unfulfilled, despite an uninterrupted series of albums of pop ballads and rancheras. On her new album of traditional Mexican music, Gabriel contributes just two numbers, including the opening track, an undistinguished huapango. The value of this collection -- aside from the excellent production and occasionally surprising song choices -- lies in Gabriel’s strength as an original song stylist. Few women capture the raw emotions and spirited bravado of this music as effectively as Gabriel, who treats these standards as if they were her own.

Gabriel relishes the delicious revenge of a woman betrayed in the sarcastic norteno ballad “Al Maestro Con Carino” (To the Master, With Love). And she dishes out the frustration of the fed-up housewife in “Peladito y en la Boca” (Well-peeled and Hand-fed), delivered with a sly ska arrangement.

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Such stylistic variations help “Tradicional” avoid the monotony of many Mexican albums. It closes with a soft instrumental written by Gabriel, “Y Tu No Estas” (And You’re Not There), which expresses tenderness and yearning in her melody.

It’s enough to quietly reassert her songwriting skill and keep the promise alive.

*

Stripped down and world-weary

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Roberto Poveda

“Son Electrico” (ALG Entertainment/DLN Records)

***

This Cuban singer, songwriter and guitarist makes his solo album debut after 25 years as a backup musician, traveling minstrel and successful soap opera actor, first in Havana, then in Bogota, now in Miami.

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Poveda’s musical roots lie in Cuba’s trova tradition, a blend of bohemian ballads and poetic political statements. Here, he expands the genre stylistically to include muted jazzy horns, lounge grooves and electric guitars with bluesy and Afro-pop overtones, all on gently loping Cuban rhythms. With that mix, Poveda distills a cool new coffeehouse sound that’s part Tom Waits and part Pablo Milanes.

Now in his early 40s, Poveda writes songs of love, loss and melancholy, delivered in a rum-soaked, raspy voice with the detached resignation of a wounded romantic. That world-weary attitude is somewhat new to trova, which tends to be more earnest, uplifting and lyrical. In stripping the style of its florid idealism, Poveda makes it more modern, and more American.

*

Proving he’s still got that swing

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Jimmy Bosch

“El Avion de la Salsa” (JRGR)

***

This dynamic trombonist has been a standard-bearer for hard-core, New York-style salsa since his 1998 CD debut as a bandleader. In his third album, Bosch continues the solid dance tradition with help from respected veterans such as Yomo Toro (cuatro), Alfredo De La Fe (violin) and Andy Gonzalez (bass) on some tracks. Juan Rey Bayona makes an impressive debut as an old-school, improvisational singer who could have easily fit in the powerful Puerto Rican bands of Roberto Roena or Willie Rosario.

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As a songwriter, Bosch, who penned all 11 tracks, falls short of standards set by the greats of the Fania Records era, such as Tite Curet Alonso, or even Willie Colon. But forget the lyrics (and the amateurish cover illustration). When it comes to swing and ‘70s salsa power, they don’t make bands like Bosch’s anymore.

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent). The albums are released unless noted.


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