THE Latin music scene of late has been short on big-name smashes, save the trusty pop of Colombia's Shakira. Yet artists continue to make great music despite the commercial slump. Here's a sample of recommended recent releases, including flamenco pop, New York fusion, Afro-Cuban grooves and South American urban folk.
" ... Y Ahora Lola. Un Regalo a Mi Madre" (Warner Music Latina)
LOLA FLORES is one of the most beloved figures in the history of show business in Spain, an Andalusian entertainer whose career spanned television, film, theater and dance in the postwar era. Her formidable legacy includes her talented offspring -- daughters Lolita and Rosario, both successful singers and actresses, and son Antonio, a rock musician who died of an overdose in 1995 after his mother's death from cancer at age 72.
Now, on the 10th anniversary of Lola's passing, Flores' elder daughter has released a loving and intimate tribute to her mother's musical legacy. The 12-song set includes numbers that have become Ibero-American standards, such as the catchy copla "Pena, Penita, Pena," popularized in one of Flores' many films. In a brief personal preface to the lyrics in the CD booklet, Lolita explains that movie fans would clamor for the reel to be rewound to hear the song again. The singer's notes help listeners appreciate the context and meaning of these historic tunes.
Produced with affection and finesse by Fernando Illan, the album wisely avoids a straight recycling of traditional songs. Lolita makes them her own with fresh arrangements textured with jazz touches and modernized rhythms. The album's most powerful song is its only new one, the melancholic "Un Camino de Flores" (A Path of Flowers) by Antonio Martinez Ares. It's a moving mini-biography, cleverly evoking song titles and historical references to capture how deeply the late singer's life was entwined with the modern history of her country.
"Island Life" (Razor & Tie)
PRODUCER-composer-guitarist Andres Levin has emerged as the master chef of urban fusion, a sizzling musical stir-fry arising from the mix of Latin cultures in U.S. cities. A Venezuelan based in New York, Levin adds even more elements to his buoyant mix in this sophomore outing with his band, Yerba Buena, joined by a boatload of invited guests, including flamenco star Diego el Cigala and '60s Latin soul singer Joe Bataan.
Strangely, the weakest cuts come first. But by track 6, "La Candela," a show-stopping tribute to Los Van Van featuring Cuban hip-hop trio Orishas, it's clear Levin has found fusion's perfect formula, one that reveals individual ingredients while subsuming them in the blend. This is also a more artful and thoughtful work than the band's party-hearty debut, revealing a biting satire in "Bla, bla, bla," which skewers President Bush and record company executives in one sarcastic swoop.
A caveat: Don't skip tracks too fast. Yerba Buena's fusion takes unexpected turns as each song brilliantly unfolds.
"Soy Yo" (Ahi Nama)
FLUTIST-arranger-composer Orlando Valle, nicknamed Maraca, is among the few contemporary Cuban bandleaders to maintain a foothold in the U.S. after the collapse of the late-'90s Cuban music fad. His secret is in the groove, where he finds a balance between Cuba's avant-garde intensity and the more commercial tastes of the domestic salsa market.
The formula on his latest high-energy CD hasn't changed: irresistible and varied rhythms with short, catchy chorus lines. The solid dozen songs were mostly written by Maraca and are mostly sung by his commanding but underrated sonero, Wilfredo Campa. As is evident from the roof-raising, reggaeton-tinged title track ("I'm the One"), Maraca again manages to stay abreast of trends while preserving the ferocious drive, unbridled joy and technical dexterity that have made contemporary Cuban dance music so compelling.
Kevin Johansen + The Nada
"City Zen" (Sony/Los Anos Luz)
IN his third album, this bicultural Argentine American baritone continues to create some of the most delightfully offbeat pop music to be found between Anchorage and Buenos Aires. His low-key, deadpan delivery masks a mischievous wit and a winking sense of humor in songs such as the tango spoof "Buenos Aires Anti-Social Club" and the satirical "Milonga Subtropical," a bittersweet observation of upside-down life in a dead-end place at the bottom of the Earth. Johansen is joined on several tracks by some of the Southern Hemisphere's finest singer-songwriters: Leon Gieco, Vicentico, Jorge Drexler.
The album's biggest misstep is the inclusion of five English tracks, the album's second half. Johansen may be bilingual, but he writes much better in Spanish. Despite the CD's clever title, his clunky English lyrics lack the tickle and spark of his Spanish rhymes and wordplays. The bilingual track, "La Falla de San Andres" (The Fault of San Andres), shows side by side how painfully his English verses fall flat.
Still, Johansen's charm and originality redeem the work as a whole.
"Jazz'ta Bueno" (Fonosound/Universal)
HERE'S a gorgeous Latin-jazz debut by this Cuban saxophonist, alumnus of two of his country's most influential modern bands, Irakere and NG La Banda. Averhoff now lives in Miami and is joined on two tracks by fellow exile Paquito D'Rivera, also formerly of Irakere's powerful, progressive brass lineup.
Far from the intense, at times frenetic attack of his former bands, this all-instrumental work offers a smooth, lyrical and melodic set based on tasty but restrained Latin rhythms, from cha-cha-cha and classic danzon to Brazilian bossa nova.
Averhoff's tenor and alto sax improvisations are the centerpieces, but the band works as a marvelously cohesive unit. Nicky Orta's delicate piano stands out, and he deserves Averhoff's praise as "the Cuban Bill Evans." The CD is produced by Frankie Marcos, a pioneer of the so-called Miami Sound with the group Clouds. If this CD represents the new Miami, the city's sound has soared to an ultra-sophisticated level.
"Fuego y Amor" (Racy Music)
A promising debut from the grandson of Puerto Rico's prolific songwriter, Bobby Capo, bringing R&B; style and rock energy to tasty Caribbean rhythms and a strong Latin songwriting tradition.
"Faluas do Tejo" (Metro Blue)
A sublime musical tribute to Lisbon from this elegant quintet that creates a modern blend based on the bittersweet fado music of Portugal with a dash of samba, reggae and even electronica, all featuring the transcendent vocals of Teresa Salgueiro.
"Antonio Orozco" (Universal Music Latino)
Solid contemporary pop from this Barcelona singer-songwriter whose raspy, flamenco-tinged voice evokes his compatriot Alejandro Sanz. Orozco avoids Latin pop cliches, lacing his midtempo ballads with guitars and strings to create swirling, hypnotic moods.