Unexpected Treat

Rubén Blades proves that his passion for trying something novel and challenging remains undiminished on his latest adventure, Tangos (Sunnyside). While the focus is on Argentina’s gift to the world, the title tells only part of the story. Indeed, Tangos is far from just another reading of the core Argentine repertoire favored by vocalists in recent decades. That wouldn’t be Blades’ style.

The salsa icon and his key collaborator, Carlos Franzetti, handpicked 11 themes by the Panama native to be transformed into a new musical idiom. Poetic lyrics that Blades penned years ago make the transformation effortlessly. The raging energy of Afro-Cuban rhythms and the searing orchestral heat of trumpets and trombones that defined the original versions of such Blades classics as “Paula C,” “Pedro Navaja” and “Pablo Pueblo” is absent here. Rather, these salsa anthems are cuddled by strings and the feathery articulations tango’s signature instrument, the bandoneón. Franzetti, a Buenos Aires native, created the arrangements for veteran bandoneónista Leopoldo Federico and his Orchestra and The City of Prague Symphony. Diehard salsa purists may view this salsa-to-tango transformation as heresy. Some might find the performances a bit too mellow for their taste. Many, however, will discover Tangos to be an entrancing, if unexpected, treat.

Madrid-born vocalist Carmen Cuesta undertakes her own survey of a hallowed Latin American music tradition on Toda Una Vida (Tweety Records). Here, it’s the beloved bolero that is treated to yet another reading. While the results aren’t as revolutionary as what Blades delivers, the singer and her group fashion a program that quickly establishes its own likeable and at times truly innovative identity.

The talents of Cuesta’s husband, jazz guitarist Chuck Loeb, blend well with an ensemble of Spanish musicians as they rework standards by Armando Manzanero, Consuelo Velázquez, Osvaldo Farrés and other noted bolero composers. The session wisely included songs not typically covered in bolero retrospectives, such as the gorgeous ballad “Dos Gardenias,” Carlos Gardel’s tango classic “El Día Que Me Querias” and Brazilian composer Antônio Carlos Jobim’s seldom heard “Eu Sei Que Vou Te Amar.” Cuesta’s intimate, whispery delivery, the warming touch of Loeb’s guitar solos, and the group’s overall relaxed, low key approach make Toda Una Vida a success. “Quizas, Quizas, Quizas,” dressed up with a sparkling, more contemporary-sounding arrangement, is a standout track.

Vocalist, guitarist and composer Jorge Drexler became famous overnight in 2005 when he won an Oscar Award for “Best Original Song.” While the native of Montevideo, Uruguay’s haunting theme “Al Otro Lado del Río” for the motion picture The Motorcycle Diaries gained him mass fame, the doctor-turned-musician was already well known to devotees of South America’s experimental pop music scene. Bailar En La Cueva (Warner Music Latina) delivers everything we’ve come to expect from the innovative Drexler and more. Recorded in Madrid and Bogotá with a bevy of Colombian musicians and such guests as Brazilian singer Caetano Veloso, it undertakes an aural tour of the region, tapping into such styles as the Colombian and Peruvian variants of cumbia and Mexico’s ranchera. “Data Data” sizzles with blasts from a fat horn section. Afro-Brazilian percussion and a techno-cumbia pulse shape the intriguing “Bolivia,” a tune that tells the story of how the composer’s Jewish grandparents arrived to South America in 1939. Bailar En La Cueva is prime Drexler---an intoxicating combination of folkloric and pop influences. His easy-going style, warmhearted voice and sophisticated melodies prove hard to resist.

Toronto-based vocalist and composer Amanda Martinez is an emerging talent with much to offer. The daughter of a Mexican father, her animated, sensuous and amber-hewed voice is perfectly suited to the flamenco and Mexican folkloric-shaded Latin pop performances she and her acoustic group deliver on Mañana (Sony Music). Initially, her masters degree in business had Martinez headed into a career as an international marketing in Latin America. Eventually she followed her heart and embraced a lifelong interest in music. On Mañana, she sings in Spanish, English and French. Those attuned to the tradition of such vocalists as Tania Libertad, Ely Guerra and Julieta Venegas will find much to appreciate in Martinez’s highly personal compositions and captivating vocal style. The rhythmically perky “Va y Viene,” a rustic spin on Madrid-style pop sounds, is one of many appealing Martinez works on this laudable set.

  By Mark Holston