Luscious Slices

When guitarist Les Paul pioneered the use of the solid body electric guitar in the early 1950s, he created the sound and technique that quickly became the stylistic template for every aspiring rock and roll strummer of the day. The popularity of the deeply resonant sound and the capability to add a sexy reverberation and wah-wah effects quickly led to such early guitar-grounded instrumental classics as “Sleep Walk” by Santo and Johnny and “Walk, Don’t Run” by the Ventures. The California-rooted surfer style and innumerable movie and TV soundtracks of the 1960s all owed their identity to this new pop hybrid.

In Havana, armed with a classic Fender Telecaster guitar and a passion to create a new Cuban tradition, Manuel Galbán quickly became his country’s leading exponent of this potent new style. He was a perfect fit for Los Zafiros, a famed vocal group that fused rock, soul, doo-wop and other traditions into a new pop expression. Three decades later, he became a member of the legendary Buena Vista Social Club ensemble.

Galbán died last year at the age of 80 shortly after recording Blue Cha Cha (Concord Picante), a CD and DVD package that explores the full range of his talents and influences. Included are tracks with such guest artists as U.S. blues singer Eric Bibb and Cuban diva Omara Portuondo. On such intriguing takes as “Rumba Del Ángel” and “Bossa Cubana,” Galbán and his group captured a luscious slice of pure pop music heaven that’s as joyous as it is timeless.

It is rare to see a folkloric instrument taken to the artistic heights conquered by harpist Carlos Castaneda on Double Portion (Arpa y Voz). What makes the release doubly rewarding is that the Colombian musician for the first time performs on a standard 47-string classical harp, providing a striking contrast to the more rustic character of his playing on the customary 32-string arpa llanera of Colombia’s hinterland.

Castaneda broadens the appeal of his 10-track program through the presence of several guests. Puerto Rican saxophonist Miguel Zenón brings fiery energy and Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba adds percussive montuno vamps while Brazilian mandolin player Hamilton de Holanda contributes an arresting duet with the leader on Astor Piazzolla’s “Libertango.” All-in-all, Double Portion is packed with listening pleasures far removed from ordinary references.

In the mid 1970s, flautist Dave Valentín exploded onto the music scene with a series of genre-defying albums that quickly established him as the most popular Latino instrumentalist of his era. In his creative hands, anything from a Beatles tune to a Tito Puente classic could be turned into aural gold. Although in failing health today, Valentín was still at top form when he recorded Pure Imagination (High Note), his current offering and one his fans hope will not be his last. With its focus on bracing originals by his pianist, Bill O’Connell, and carefully chosen standards, such as the title tune, the album stands as the ultimate testimony to Valentín’s marvelous virtuosity. Whether in its sassy or romantic persona, his flute remains one of the most expressive voices in contemporary music.

Classical guitarist Berta Rojas is more than just another renowned concert artist; she is the international cultural ambassador of her homeland, Paraguay. As such, she’s long been on a one woman crusade to make better known the under appreciated classical music of this small South American nation. On Día y medio (OnMusic Recordings), a program of 12 duets with Cuban clarinetist and saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera, Rojas focuses on the compositions of Agustín Barrios and other 20th century Paraguayan composers whose work is largely unknown and begs more attention.

Asuncion’s authoritative daily La Nación captured the session’s special appeal when it proclaimed that the two instrumentalists intertwine “with sensitivity and passion.” Some works, such as Demitrio Ortiz’s winsome “Recuerdos de Ypacaraí,” saunter gently while others, thanks to the incorporation of rhythms created by the indigenous Guaraní people, boast a more robust character and complex structure. Día y medio is much more than just a celebration of virtuosity for its own sake; its entrancing performances are alive with the spirit of a distant land that has spawned a profusion of elegant and intriguing music.

Mark Holston