New Nostalgia

Nostalgia is a common and powerful ingredient in many Latin music projects, and such is the case with two releases which successfully mine the rich stylistic traditions of the 1940s and ‘50s. The two vocal protagonists, New York’s famed “Singing Policeman” and a French chanteuse, may bring distinctly different approaches to their sessions, but what emerges from both is a strong sense of personal ownership of the vintage repertoire they perform.

Por Ti Volvaré (Blix Street), the latest from Daniel Rodríguez, proves that it’s never a good idea to judge a book by its cover. While the cheesy CD package shouts “barato,” the date’s 11 exquisite tracks respond with “que bueno es!” Rodríguez unleashes his trained operatic tenor on a program that ranges from two European hits made famous by Italian singer Andrea Bocelli, the title tune and “Con Te Partirò,” to bolero classics, salsa, and even one son huasteco classic from Mexico, “Malagueña Salerosa.” From first note to last, the album crackles with unrestrained tropical passion, thanks to the presence of a top flight, string enhanced orchestra arranged by such legendary maestros as Ray Santos. Rodríguez is always compelling, wisely attuning his powerhouse voice to the romantic mood of such revered themes as “Siboney” and “Mi Viejo San Juan.” Por Ti Volvaré is a classy affair and Rodríguez is simply sensational.

Rhythms of the Heart is what its star, vocalist Raquel Bitton, calls a “Havana meets Paris” affair. Image yourself sipping Champagne in a posh Parisian nightclub while a coquettish vocalist, backed by a large Cuban-style orchestra, croons Latin-flavored ballads. You get the idea. A longtime resident of San Francisco, Bitton reprises the repertoire of mostly European-bred boleros, tangos and other Latin-grounded compositions popularized over half a century ago by Tino Rossi, a storied French singer and actor. Overall, the mood is one of relaxed elegance, and Bitton’s sultry French delivery is the perfect complement to the melodically lavish program.

María Márquez is an aural sorceress blessed with an uncommon range of talents. A native of Venezuela who has called northern California home for years, the singer and composer is the rare artist who can take seemingly disparate elements, expertly blend them, and create something that is stylistically unique, intellectually intriguing, and, for many, uncommonly satisfying in Tonada (Adventure Music). Named after an elemental style of folk music common in the southern portion of the Andean region of Latin America, Márquez’s latest  taps an eclectic program of tunes from Venezuela and other lands tunes to transform her own wholly original statements. Assisted by many of the Bay Area’s best Latin musicians, Márquez employs a slide guitar, organ, tabla, baritone sax and other instruments not typically associated with folkloric genres. The performances amble at a relaxed gait, bereft of customary rhythmic accompaniment. The results, such as on the leader’s own intoxicatingly lovely “Canción de Cuna” and the late Aldemaro Romero’s “El Catire,” are riveting.

Another vocalist who brings her own unmistakable approach to her performances is Spanish singer Buika. Born of parents from Equatorial Guinea, she grew up on the Spanish island of Majorca. Today, Miami is home base. That’s where she collaborated with acclaimed Cuban pianist and arranger Iván “Melón” Lewis to produce La Noche Más Larga (Warner Music Spain). The album is a brave and often effective attempt to fuse flamenco and Cuban influences, with Buika’s frequent use of the gypsy-style vocal inflections so common in flamenco emerging as the session’s most potent stylistic trademarks.

The spare arrangements, shaped by Lewis’ pensive pianistics, occasionally explode into a rhythmic firestorm, peppered with woody cajón licks and palmas, the brisk hand clapping technique associated with flamenco. Buika’s smoky tone and elastic vocalizations are well suited to the introspective mood of many of the songs. Standout tracks include Belgian singer Jacques Brel‘s sentimental “Ne me quitte pas,” soulful ballads by jazz legends Billie Holiday and Abbey Lincoln, and, the true surprise of the date, an animated version of the 1970 hit by Mexican crooner José José, “La nave del olvido.”

Mark Holston