Album reviews

Rubén Blades with Roberto Delgado Orchestra – ‘Salswing!’

Rubén Blades with Roberto Delgado Orchestra – Salswing!

( Rubén Blades Productions. Album Review by Peter Jones)

Fans of TV’s Fear the Walking Dead will be familiar with Rubén Blades’s work, as will anyone who saw the X-Files episode “El Mundo Gira”. Those with slightly longer memories may recall his role in Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues. Blades is, of course, both actor and musician. He made an album (Siembra, 1978) with Willie Colon that sold 25 million copies and became the best-selling salsa release in history. Obviously none of this keeps him busy enough, so in 1994 he stood for the Presidency of Panama, winning 17% of the vote.

Blades has written or co-written about half of the tunes on this new album, which at a rough calculation seems to be his 38th as leader. His intention in making it was to show that a salsa orchestra is also capable of playing swing: the album is a mixture of styles, from salsa to… well, swing, the latter represented by three well-worn standard Pennies from Heaven, The Way You Look Tonight and Watch What Happens. The reason it sounds so lush is that arrangers Roberto Delgado and Tom Kubis know what they’re doing, and in a couple of cases (Paula C – video below – and The Way You Look Tonight) the orchestra is augmented by the Venezuela Strings Recording Ensemble. Such is Blades’ celebrity in the Spanish-speaking world that he can call upon literally dozens of top players: no fewer than seven piano players are credited among the legions of musicians on the album.

When he sings in English, Blades’s voice has that razor’s edge Sinatra-like timbre that’s a perfect fit for material of this sort, as well as effortless jazz phrasing, although unlike Sinatra, at 72 he still possesses an excellent set of pipes. From a Spanish-speaking perspective, the same no doubt applies in spades to his rendition of the salsa tunes. There isn’t much blending of the salsa material and the swing numbers: the tracks are either one or the other. Ya No Me Duele, for example, is a straight swing tune sung in Spanish, while Do I Hear Four is a swing instrumental.

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Salswing! has such an integrated sound that it’s difficult, not to mention invidious, to pick out individual players. But what a joy to listen to percussionists of the calibre of Ademir Berrocal, Raúl Rivera and Carlos Pérez Bidó on salsa numbers like Mambo Gil.

Peter Jones is a singer, composer, author and journalist who has written biographies of Mark Murphy and Jon Hendricks

LINK: Rubén Blades Productions on Bandcamp

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