When Natalie Cole and Chucho Valdes share a bill Wednesday night at the Hollywood Bowl, it will mark a long-delayed reunion of two languages and two musical dynasties.
More than half a century ago, on the eve of the Cuban Revolution, Cole's father, Nat King Cole, collaborated in Havana with Chucho's papi, Bebo Valdes, the pianist, composer and house arranger at the legendary Tropicana Club.
Their brief partnership helped give birth to Cole's 1958 landmark LP "Cole Espanol," the first full album of Spanish-language standards recorded by a top-tier U.S. artist. Arranged by Nelson Riddle, it included elegant classics such as "Quizas, Quizas, Quizas" (Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps) and "Acercate Mas" (Come Closer to Me).
Earlier this summer, Natalie Cole, following her father's example, released "Natalie Cole en Espanol," her first Spanish-language disc, as well as her first studio album after several years of personal upheaval. It received excellent reviews and topped the Latin album charts. Meanwhile, Chucho Valdes and his band, the Afro-Cuban Messengers, this summer issued their latest genre-subverting jazz experiment, the aptly named "Border-Free."
For Cole, 63, and Valdes, 71, mixing languages and genres is simply part of their musical DNA. So, although they've never met face to face, they expect to be simpatico when they share the Bowl's stage. "I'm very excited about it, and he's very excited about it," Cole said by phone.
The multiple Grammy Award-winning singer remembers touring as an 8-year-old with her father in Mexico, after "Cole Espanol" was released to critical approval across the hemisphere. "I wasn't there for any of the recordings, but it was my first introduction to traveling outside the U.S. at the time, and just being around such a different culture of people, and music-wise, it made a really big impression on me," she said.
Valdes, who lives in Spain, recalled meeting the elder Cole and hearing him perform during his first Havana sojourn. "Imagine that now I am playing with the daughter of Nat King Cole. For me, it represents something historic, a beautiful thing," he said.
Cole said her father, whose manager was from Honduras, worked frequently with Latin American musicians and had numerous Cuban friends who would visit her family's home. Nat King Cole, who combated racism throughout his life (including a Ku Klux Klan cross-burning at his Hancock Park house), also got to experience Cuba's version of segregation, when a color bar prevented him from staying at the Hotel Nacional.
The first time she heard her father sing in Spanish, Cole said, "I thought it was kind of funny, because I knew a little Spanish and I thought my father's accent was very funny. And he was very honest about the fact that he did not know a word of Spanish."
Yet the elder Cole's affection and respect for the music won over his Spanish-speaking listeners, and he went on to record two more Spanish-language records, "A Mis Amigos" (1959) and "More Cole Espanol" (1962).
Valdes' new disc also is a family project. One track, "Bebo," pays tribute to his father and his style of playing piano and composing. Another tune, "Pilar," dedicated to Valdes' mother, singer-pianist Pilar Rodriguez, interpolates fragments of J.S. Bach's "Prelude in D Minor," one of her favorite pieces.
"Border-Free," with influences ranging from Rachmaninoff to Moroccan percussion, also nods to an obscure historical incident in which a band of Comanche Indians captured by Spanish soldiers in the 1700s were transported as prisoners to Cuba. The album's cover depicts Valdes wearing the feathered headdress of a Plains Indian chief.
"The concept of the album is to represent the story that is known of the Comanche Indians who lived in Cuba at the end of the 19th century and mixed with the Afro-Cubans," said Valdes, who has devoted much of his career to exploring musical links between the Spanish- and English-speaking Americas. "It's the same as what happens in New Orleans with Mardi Gras, with the black slaves [performing] together with Indians."
Cole said her Spanish-language debut disc came about through a dramatic process in which three people were instrumental: her Cuban American producer Rudy Perez, Verve Music Group Chairman David Foster and a Salvadoran nurse named Esther.
Four years ago, Cole was diagnosed with kidney failure, likely caused by hepatitis C contracted during her long battle with drug addiction. She started receiving dialysis and later made an appeal for a kidney donor on "Larry King Live."
One of those watching with sympathy was the Salvadoran nurse who happened to be on duty at Cedars-Sinai hospital one day when Cole was receiving treatment. Barely two months later, the nurse's 30-year-old pregnant niece, a Salvadoran immigrant and organ donor, died unexpectedly of a stroke. Her aunt offered her kidney to Cole.
Cole received the news while waiting bedside at a San Fernando Valley hospital where her sister Carole was dying of lung cancer.
"This family saved my life," Cole said. "And in the next several years, I just was drawn even more to Latin people, Latin programs. I was listening to a lot of Spanish music. And I told David Foster maybe 31/2 years ago, 'I think I might want to do a Spanish record.'"
Although Cole at first considered using a language coach, she found that the Spanish pronunciations came fairly naturally to her.
In addition to a time-slipping "duet" with her late father on the bolero "Acercate Mas," using the same technology that permitted their posthumous pairing on "Unforgettable," the disc includes vocal collaborations with Andrea Bocelli on "Besame Mucho" and Juan Luis Guerra ("Bachata Rosa").
"One of the really cool things that Rudy said to me was, 'I'm not looking for you to become Spanish or Latin. I need you to still be Natalie Cole.'"