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Music Reviews

Yma Sumac:
The Voice of Xtabay


Yma Sumac is one of the most fascinating characters in popular music history. Her legend is as wild as her four-octave range. The vision of her "talking with the birds, the beasts, the winds, the sounds of life and nature" in the Peruvian village of Ichocan and the rumor that her real name is Amy Camus (from New Jersey, no less) are both intriguing. Ultimately they don't matter because the music is an intoxicating blend of camp, exotica, Latin rhythms and vocal acrobatics. The best songs invoke images of eagles flying over the Peruvian mountains circling a small village. The camera pans in on a scene of either bloodthirsty Jivaro Indians or a maiden combing her tresses in the morning light with a bone comb.

Most of Yma's catalogue has been out-of-print since the era of the compact disc. There was a brief release of Voice of Xtabay in 1988 and a sloppy compilation called The Spell of Yma Sumac (Pair PCD-1172). Eventually a performance from Russia was released (Live in Concert 1961, Elect CD 2116) a pair of French imports but the real story was yet to be retold.

The label The Right Stuff has done a wonderful thing in releasing five great Capitol titles. There are no bonus tracks or additional liner notes but the albums are complete and the sound is fine. Who could ask for anything more?

Voice of Xtabay (The Right Stuff 0777-7-1 921217) is a major work with arrangements by Les Baxter and Yma's then husband Moises Vivanco. It's probably considered the "one" to get if you're on a limited budget (but whoever heard of a budget for music?). The Vivanco numbers have a more folk feel but the whole thing is compelling. Legend of the Sun Virgin (The Right Stuff 0777-7-91250-2-9) features Vivanco all the way through. It covers some of the same ground as Voice of Xtabay but there are several tracks with great hooks that shouldn't be missed, the opener Karibe Taki, in particular. We can't tell you why, but we think this must be our favorite. It might be our imagination but she seems most in control of her voice here and Vivanco is most sensitive to his wife's needs. Musically, we mean.

While it's not typical of an Yma Sumac recording, Mambo! (The Right Stuff 077-7-80863) seems to be everyone's favorite. As authentic as cheese nachos at a ballpark, it's got Billy May arrangements and Yma camping her way through 11 mostly peppy numbers that are almost impossible to dance to, let alone do the mambo. The wildest number that uses most of her four octaves, is Malambo No.1. We had the pleasure of seeing her do this number live in the late 1980s and the audience went nuts, especially when Yma announced that singing Malambo No.1 took a lot out of her.

Legend of the Jivaro (Right Stuff 7243-8-36355) is a tribute to the headhunting Indians that supposedly lived only one hundred miles from where Yma was raised. It's hard to gauge how accurately Vivanco captured the native melodies and dialect but it's a dark, slick study. We tend to play this disc the least. The cover is classic, with Yma staring intently at a shrunken head.

Finally, Fuego del Ande (The Right Stuff 7243-8-32681-2-2) takes a completely different turn and gives us a light breezy version of Peruvian folk music. Instead of a big orchestra, Fuego del Ande features mostly smaller combo settings, sounding either authentic or with an odd but pleasant "rock" beat. Some of the tracks sound as if they were arranged by whoever did The Munsters TV theme. Especially at the start of the record, Yma sings in a more relaxed (though no less eccentric) manner. By Virgenes del Sol she's pretty whacked out. The whole affair is infectious, especially the various waltzes.

Yma Sumac is not for everyone but if you like her, you'll really want to get all five volumes on The Right Stuff. If you're dubious, there's a sampler CD available. The next release to watch for is her early '70s title with Les Baxter, Miracles. This was the first place where we heard Yma (a student teacher we admired showed us the light) and it's beyond description except to say that it tries to cash in on the acid rock trend and Yma somehow still manages to sound musical. Hopefully this release will make it to CD before long.

Howard Rumsey's Lighthouse All-Stars
Mexican Passport
Contemporary CCD-14077-2 Jazz

We have perhaps an irrational love for this album. It sends us back to backyard barbecues where we (at the tender age of nine or so) would make dry martinis for the adults while pater grilled thick steaks and abalone on the grill. Mater would empty the ashtrays that were nothing more than the discarded abalone shells that Dad had dove for earlier in the day. All the while, swinging West Coast Jazz was blaring from the console hi-fi. It also brings back that disgusting but intriguing smell of the morning after with old gin, steak fat and cigarette butts. How often this actually happened is up for debate but it made a firm impression on our pre-adolescent brain. Urban sprawl in the 1960s surely had its downside but there really was a California Culture that was a lot of fun.

The 10 tracks on Mexican Passport are from various other Lighthouse All-Star dates but their common thread is the groovy beatnik beat which has less to do with Africa, Cuba or Mexico than San Francisco's North Beach. The beat is somehow Latin in origin but the Mexican connection has more to do with a Tijuana weekend jam session than culture from south of the border.

Each track features an upbeat jam that will have you snapping your fingers, rolling your head to and fro with eyes closed and moaning "Crazy, man, crazy!"

Jesus Alemany 
Hannibal HNCD 1390 Latin

Oops! We forgot to tell you about this winner when it came out earlier this year. Jesus Alemany is from Cuba's seminal Sierra Maestra band and his solo effort is an interesting blend of jazz and folkloric Cuban music, unlike anything else. Alemany very cleverly revives a few old numbers by tres master Arsenio Rodriguez, among others, and adds jazzy horn arrangements to the country feeling.

This isn't for straight ahead dancing but the hips will sway. The recording is incredibly clean and the mix of vibrant jazz and relaxed Cuban son works very well.


Nnenna Freelon
Shaking Free
Concord Records CCD-4714 Jazz/Vocals

Nnenna Freelon's first two discs on Columbia were not our favorites. Freelon had trouble shaking the influence of Abbe Lincoln and there was an overly precious assumption of importance to the albums. They weren't bad but we found them overstylized and not worth a second listen.

How nice it is to find this new Concord Jazz album! Freelon is in great voice and the relaxed Concord atmosphere that can make Rosemary Clooney sound a bit lazy actually seems to inspire Freelon.

Accompanied by a trio and a few guest artists, Shaking Free is an easy-going session recorded over two days. The musicians are given plenty of the spotlight and the no-nonsense arrangements are perfect.

With the mass of new women jazz singers on the horizon, mostly failing on some key level, it's a treat to be able to say we look forward to what she comes up with next.

Descarga Boricua
Descarga Boricua II: Abrazate
RMM Records RMD282020 Salsa

Two years ago just about the most exciting new salsa release was the debut double set by Descarga Boricua. It was well-done without sounding slick and they juggled salsa, Afro and jazz in a particularly compelling way.  Descarga Boricua is now on the widely distributed RMM label, known for its flashes of brilliance and sometimes for its commercial dribble aimed at teens. While not quite as compelling as their debut release, Abrazate is solid salsa mixed with not unpleasant light jazz. We probably could have whittled this double CD down to one, but there are many great moments and we really like the strong vocals.

With all of the mediocre salsa available these days, we say Descarga Boricua is the one to watch.


Arthur Lyman
Rykodisc/hifi RCD 50364

The easy story to tell is that Arthur Lyman played with the seminal Martin Denny group that produced the Lps Exotica and Exotica II and the hit Quiet Village. He later branched off on his own and achieved great success playing similar Afro-Polynesian music. Some regarded him as a second-rate Denny and it's true he did produce his share of pleasant but mediocre Exotica. The more difficult concept to grasp is how the two groups played similar music but sound altogether different.

Our personal version of his Taboo Lp has so many scratches that we never regarded it as one of the classics. This beautifully remastered CD is like hearing a whole new album. It works perfectly for a subdued evening of cocktails and poo poo platters but it also warrants a real listening because the real treat of Taboo is the Lyman knack for arrangements.

The sound of Taboo is rich and full but you really have to stop at times and realize that there are sometimes only two or three instruments playing together. Lyman never really swings the way Denny could but he's completely in control. The sparse arrangements are very clever and often evoke a sense of pleasant melancholy. You're stranded on this desert island but you might as well make the best of it.

The original 12 tracks work perfectly together. We sometimes think the biggest curse of the modern compact disc is the length. The extra bonus tracks (especially the song from Bridge on the River Kwai) break the mood or guild the lily, depending on how you see it. Still, it's better to have too much than to exclude.


PDU (EMI) CD 30045 Italy


Many of you are aware of our rather passionate appreciation of the Italian pop songstress, Mina. Perhaps her songs were the soundtrack for our coming of age in Italy in the early 1980s or maybe her voice is really as good as we think it is. Either way, you can learn the language, drink espresso, use "ciao" as a greeting or make your own pasta, but until you "get" Mina, you don't "get" modern Italy.

She started out with a bang in the very late 1950s as one of the new breed of singers called "Gli Urlatori" (The Screamers). These artistes sound rather tame now but when they came on the scene in Italy, it was a revolution after the traditional Italian sound so tied to the opera-lirica. Mina went on to record hundreds of records following the styles of the day. She worked briefly with the prolific Ennio Morricone, among other top arrangers, and in many ways represented the Italian jet set. She was banned from the state television networks because she brazenly had a child out of wedlock and shocked and delighted when she made her triumphant return to TV in a mini-gonna (mini skirt) singing the folk-pop ballads of the Italian Bob Dylan, Lucio Battisti.

As for her voice, Sarah Vaughan once said, "If I didn't have my voice, I'd want hers!" She's a big belter with great taste but she's strictly pop music with few pretensions.

She continued to record albums throughout the 1970s, often with weirder and weirder album art. In 1978, she gave her last concert and then quit performing live, gained a huge amount of weight and released an annual double album each October, always with the first disc being what we call standards and the Italians call "evergreens". The second disc always featured contemporary songs, mostly produced by her talented son Massimiliano Pani. Usually the indulgent double discs could have been whittled down to a solid single disc, but sales have always been strong and there seemed no reason to deviate from the successful formula. We openly admit, the last few years have produced little of interest, mostly because the quality of songwriting in Italy, as most everywhere, has deteriorated.

When our friend Michael at All Music Services called us (as he does frequently, knowing how to feed our little CD habit) to let us know there was a new Mina called Napoli, we thought maybe it was a compilation of older recordings, but we took a chance and ordered it. We were in for a shock.

First off, La Mina has shed at least two thirds of her weight and poses openly full figure on the cover for the first time since 1978. She looks pretty good, but the real surprise was the music. Instead of the overproduced but competent pop music we've come to except, Napoli is a collection of live studio recordings made with her regular core musicians. While Mina is not a jazz singer, the musicians obviously are of the jazz school and the mostly simple arrangements are refreshing. The playing of her long time pianist Danilo Rea is particularly subtle and fine. The songs are a combination of old chestnuts like Passione and Maruzezlea and newer compositions by younger folks like the talented Pino Danielle. The pace is lethargic to moderate but it's a wonderful relaxed set that just grows and grows on one. The big notes are featured here and there but there's a mighty large amount of restraint from a woman who previously was known as "the girl with an orchestra in her throat".

We think it's incredibly clever of the old gal to record an album of her musical roots instead of trying again to unsuccessfully re-invent pop music. Mina's from Cremona in the north but the influence of this Southern music was felt over the entire country, thanks to popular folk songs and the great singer Claudio Villa. It's not unlike Natalie Cole cashing in on her father's legacy except here the music works.

There's a companion disc, Cremona, but it's the standard fare with slick, bland songs, one or two good cuts and an amazing note or two.


Dianne Reeves
The Grand Encounter
Blue Note CDO 724383826827 Vocals/Jazz

Our first exposure to Dianne Reeves was on Lou Rawls' album At Last, where she raised the roof on a couple of duets with Rawls. This was followed up with her great solo album, I Remember. Here was a near-perfect collection of songs, tempos and moods, all featuring what we consider just about the best voice around. In concert, she has a commanding presence and her voice is even more spectacular than on record. Since then, her output has been either mediocre or just plain awful.

With top-flight musicians and many standard songs, The Grand Encounter has the elements to make it as solid as I Remember, but it just doesn't do the singer justice. The opening track, Old Country, shows promise, even though we've always found the lyrics rather mean-spirited and irrationally harsh. This is followed by an OK version of Cherokee. So far so good, but not for long. Besame Mucho has been done about 200 times too many, and the addition of a harmonica adds to the irritation factor. This is followed up with Let Me Love You, a nice little throw-away ditty and then a lethargic duet with Joe Williams, who is in fine voice. About now, the disc needs a real flag-waver but the pace is brought down even more with a bland ballad called After Hours. Ha! is a cute Lambert Hendricks & Ross-inspired song, but not enough to save our sinking ship. Some Other Spring worked as a Billie Holiday number because Holiday sang it, not because it was a great melody. Reeves unwisely takes it at a slow pace and you can just feel the boredom set in. Side by Side, with Germaine Bazzle, sounds as if it belongs on a TV variety show with its pedestrian arrangement. The album closes with I'm Okay, which works despite another dirge pace but after all the other tracks on The Grand Encounter, our tendency is to rush to take off the disc.

The recording is pristine and the arrangements, while mostly bland, are tasteful.

Obviously we like Reeve's voice but we've come to the conclusion that she should avoid the trappings of jazz and just go for being a vocalist. Her tendency to take songs at their slowest pace and try to wring every nuance out of a melody is usually fatal and ends up making her sound rather sour. Live, she's rather joyous and perhaps her producers should focus on this strength.






The Martini rating System

© Coconut Grove Media

Scientific, Accurate
& Easy To Understand!
5 Martinis = Classic
4 Martinis = Great
3 Martinis = Good
2 Martinis = Fair
1 Martini = Poor


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