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Music Reviews

 Bebo Valdés
Bebo Rides Again
Messidor 15834-2 Jazz / Latin

Bebo Valdés is an important figure in Cuban music for many reasons. Most importantly, during the 1950s he was an outstanding pianist and arranger, both for his own outfit, Sabor de Cuba, and as an accompanist for top vocalists of the day like Celeste Mendoza. We've cited before his own disc Todo Ritmo (TH Rovden TH-13050) as a "must-have" for any Latin cocktail party, and the disc Mucho Sabor (Palladium PCD 123) has many great tracks worthy of your consideration. His fine musical genes were passed on to his son Chucho Valdés, the pianist and director of Cuba's seminal contemporary band Irakere. Bebo left Cuba for Europe many years ago and, according to the liner notes, Bebo Rides Again turns out to be his first recording in 34 years.

When we heard that this new disc was coming out, we asked around and the comment we heard was "it would make great dinner music". This was a bit frustrating because Bebo's other albums made our hips move in a particularly carefree manner. The good news is that Bebo Rides Again is more than just dinner music but there are some serious flaws.

The two big mistakes were using the electric guitar (instead of a tres or making the bass more prominent) and reed player Paquito d'Rivera. The guitar playing of Carlos Emilio Morales is fine but seems at odds with most of the arrangements. On Al Dizzy Gillespie it works in a nutty way because the arrangement has a jet set go-go feeling to it but on almost all of the other tracks there's an airy-fairy type of playing that sounds somewhere between Pat Metheny and Larry Carlton. This is not to say that Cuban music should stagnate and not experiment but the results are just not good here. Paquito d'Rivera is quite well-known and when he first arrived in the States he made two good discs on Columbia showcasing his eclectic tastes and mastery of many jazz idioms. He then seemed to rediscover his Latin roots and his recordings varied from an edgy hard bop sound to outright schmaltz, often on the same album. We find his tone on the sax very irritating and his tributes to his Cuban roots are mostly too cute and pedestrian. His clarinet-playing on the Danzon numbers works better but there's always a self-conscious "tribute to the past" feeling when he's involved in a project. Still, it seems as if this disc wouldn't have been made at all without his clout and to give him credit, he's very popular.

Happily, there's plenty to recommend on Bebo Rides Again. Bebo still plays with grace and fire and the typically pristine Messidor recording is well-balanced. Some of the disc is so smooth it actually does work as dinner music but you really should listen at top volume. Anda, Pan con Timba and To Mario Bauza are all great dance numbers. Bebo's own Felicia and Maria Teresa Vera's Veinte Años are beautiful boleros that show off Bebo's chops and the gorgeous fidelity of the disc. Ernesto Lecuona's La Comparsa is given a trio arrangement with piano, bongos and guitar and it explores the great melody. The trumpet and flugelhorn of Diego Urcola are great throughout.

Despite the flaws, we've ended up listening to this disc a lot and are happy that Bebo Valdés is indeed riding again. Hopefully, this is the first of many new discs from this 76-year-old maestro.

The excellent Descarga newsletter recently published an article on Bebo's life and work. We can't recommend this publication enough, if only to keep abreast of new releases but also for the interesting stories and no nonsense reviews. Call 800/377.2647 for more information.


 Annie Ross
Pacific Jazz (Blue Note) CDP 7243 8 33574 20 Vocals / Jazz

We had such high hopes for this disc! It's a jazz interpretation of Jule Styne's score Gypsy, with Annie Ross backed by a stellar West Coast Jazz ensemble. What should have been great is instead pleasant and occasionally rotten. Ross sounds drunk and unsteady on the fast numbers like Everything's Coming Up Roses and Some People, but You'll Never Get Away and Small World are nice.

We wish we hadn't bought it.


 Various Artistes
The Sound Gallery, Vol. One
Scamp SCP 9707-2

The Sound Gallery is a collection of 24 British easy listening recordings from 1968 to 1974. It is apparently the rage in the U.K., similar to the Lounge revival currently in vogue in the U.S. For many reasons, including its size, the distribution system and the radio, the Brits enjoy a generally more open music scene and the very clever and creative can influence the masses, unlike in the States where a large corporate music machine needs to appeal to the lowest common denominator. We often look to London for inspiration but after hearing The Sound Garden for the first time, we thought that maybe Mad Cow Disease had affected some one's judgment.

The music sounds like the segue themes used in shows like Love American Style. It's very funny and piss-elegant in a 1970s kind of way but surprisingly it's not awful and often it's very good. A few of the tracks, like Half Forgotten Daydream, could have come off a modern acid jazz/dance disc by Towa Tei or one of the groups on the Kyoto Jazz Massive, simply by pumping up the bass a bit.

Many folks will out and out hate this disc (and we fully understand why they might) but one has to acknowledge that the phenomenon is amazing. It's the first real 1970s revival. The flabby disco trend and especially the New Wave "comeback" were both really nostalgia trips programmed by the fashion industry and marketers. Like it or not, this could be the next Big One. Frankly, we prefer this as an influence over today's youth rather than another rehash of Led Zepplin or the Rolling Stones.


Polygram 526779-2 Brasil

Hey, here's an idea: Take just about the most infectious dance music made in the last 15 years from Brazil's Bahia region, mangle the melodies and vocals until they're mostly unrecognizable "raps" or trippy non sequitors and then cover the natural rhythms with an electronic drum machine. Voila! Manifest destiny at it's best!

Any fan of Timbalada will be pretty horrified by this mess. The only track that is somewhat interesting is the dancehall version of Beija Flor. The other nine tracks are a computerized nigtmare, stripping the Bahian beat of all it's complexity and leaving the listener with a dull thumping sound.

We say avoid at all costs.


 Chico Hamilton Quintet
Chico Hamilton Quintet featuring Eric Dolphy
Fresh Sounds FSCD 1004 Jazz


Around 1965, the original Chico Hamilton Quintet made history by playing their unique brand of "chamber jazz" that was both swinging and arty and made the more unusual by the additions of flute and cello. Missing was the ubiquitous piano. Their historic first two discs on Pacific Jazz have been long out of print and legend has it that by the time they recorded this session in 1959, the band was stuck in a succsessful rut. Who cares? To our ears this CD is pretty swell.


 Eydie Gormé
Eydie Swings the Blues
Taragon Records TARCD 1012 Vocals

We find Eydie Gormé fascinating. She's a big belter of a singer with pretty good taste. She occasionally tries to be humorous but she lacks wit. She's in total control of her voice, and more often than not, sings in a direct way but often her delivery is clinical with no sense of intimacy. This isn't so bad when you're a belter, it's just that belting for belting's sake isn't very much in vogue these days (although Mariah Carey seems to prove that screaming for screaming's sake is quite popular).

Despite the title, the collection of songs on Eydie Swings the Blues are torch songs rather than the blues. This is a good thing as we can't imagine what Eydie and arranger Don Costa would have come up with if they decided to present a traditional blues set. Instead we get 12 standards performed to varying degrees of success. On the whole, it's a lot of fun. Her version of When the Sun Comes Out, which predates Barbra Streisand's very similar performance by three years, is almost perfect. The difference is that you get the feeling that Eydie's heart's desire will be coming back home as soon as the storm ends while Streisand's unrequited love will never return (with good reason judging from the hysteria in her voice). Blues in the Night is given a quasi-honky tonk arrangement that shouldn't work but does. Stormy Weather, Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man and After You've Gone are all good. Eydie gets in trouble when she tries to interpret Duke Ellington. I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good and Don't Get Around Much Any More are pretty awful. When Your Lover Has Gone is fair but comparing it to the similar arrangement of Keely Smith's version on I Wish You Love shows how Eydie's arranger Don Costa had a lot of trouble keeping up with Keely's Nelson Riddle.

Despite the criticism, we've been playing this disc often.


 Xavier Cugat
The Early Years 1933-1938
Harlequin HT CD 55 Latin

As we have noted many times before, Cugat was a great underrated band leader. Too often we think only of the chihuahua or Abbe Lane or Charo when we think of Cugie. It's a pity because it's hard to think of another band leader that maintained such a consistent record of adapting to trends in Latin and popular music and still keeping his own distinct sound. From the Rumba craze of the '30s to the Mambo movement, he played his deluxe version of the clave beat like nobody else.

Before we get angry letters from hard-core Latin fans, we freely admit that little of what Cugat did, especially in the 1930s when he met his initial success, was authentic. He took the songs and beats of Cuba and fused them with American dance music. He often complained that his early audiences didn't want to hear authentic Cuban music and this might be true but he needn't be defensive. The music still stands on its own.

To some modern ears, the songs collected on The Early Years 1933-1938 might sound like cartoon soundtracks without much of an edge. This is to miss the point. These early tracks have a more relaxed feeling but the percussion and clave are integral to the sound. Rather than a cartoon, we imagine a slow hot afternoon in a bordello, rum drink in hand and a fine floor show to boot.

The songs range from Latin standards like Margarita Lecuona's seminal Tabu to current popular numbers like Isle of Capri and Begin the Bequine. It's interesting to hear this version of Begin the Beguine because Cugat kept basically the same arrangement throughout the years and we'd guess this was one of his first recordings of the Cole Porter classic. Marion Sunshine's Havana Is Calling Me quickly segues into a plena, Santa Maria, that has a great chunky beat.

The label Harlequin has done us all a great service by putting together this great collection of early Cugat. The only duplicate we know of is En el Rancho Grande so no collector can pass this one by and non-collectors in the mood for something nutty will have a good time.

One hint for listening to pre-Lp music that we've mentioned before is to listen to the music a track at a time. This CD's generous 24 cuts might be too intense for a complete listening and these songs were recorded as singles, so they pack a lot of punch into 21/2 minutes.




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