There’s something innocently adventurous about voyaging into a genre of music that you know virtually nothing about and then attempting to critically discuss a record that resides in said genre. I like Sinatra and Jobim as much as the next guy, but give or take a few girls from Ipanema, my knowledge in the field of jazz created south of the US border is of mighty limited substance. But then, maybe that’s for the best. Pretenses are plenty of that which ruins so many things artistic, so if there are any surrounding Luis Mario Ochoa, I’m sure glad to be ignorant of them, because Cimarron has proven to be one of the most thoroughly enjoyable records I’ve heard in a good long while.
It’s a difficult album not to like on principle alone. Take a look at the cover and just try to resist being seduced by the charm of that suavely dressed Latin man with the guitar. He’s not trying to bullshit anyone; he wants you to buy his record, and he wants you to take it home and be wildly entertained by it. One hates to oversimplify, but there’s something about Luis Mario Ochoa’s grin on the cover of this record that more adequately describes the music contained therein than any review could ever hope to; he knows a riotous party is about to erupt on your stereo, and he’s just waiting for your reaction.
Cimarron is a spectacular coming together of exceptionally skilled players whose individual excellences are only surpassed by their collective ability to exist as pieces of the larger puzzle. The vocalists, the percussionists, the horn section, even the soloists—every musical component to this record is strategically placed and stunningly performed. Album opener “Como Penelope” is a raucous exchange between Ochoa’s spirited singing and Alexis Bar’s trumpet playing that perfectly sets the mood for the remainder of the disc. Along the way, we’re treated to a melodically flawless reading of Henry Mancini’s lovely “Days of Wine and Roses” that features a rhythmically delicious solo from bassist Paco Luviano; the supremely catchy “Afro-Cuban Chant”, whose main melody sounds like the bridge to the Grateful Dead’s “Help on the Way” as played by a mariachi band; Guido Basso’s tender flugelhorn intro “Alma Con Alma”, reminiscent of Miles Davis leading into a romantic version of “My Funny Valentine” circa 1964, setting the stage for some spot-on vocal harmonies from Ochoa and Luis Mario Ochoa, Sr., whose vocals blend in a way that only two people whose voices are made of the same DNA code could blend. Scattered throughout are passages of Ochoa’s brilliantly fluid and subtly tactical flamenco guitar playing.
The best moment is the last moment, “Declaracin de Amor”, a track that sounds like it was designed to be the farewell number of a blistering outdoor concert on a hot July night. Ochoa sings with a projection that blends unrivaled fun with cry-for-freedom desperation, while the backup singers belt out the most melodically satisfying chorus I’ve heard all millennium, hand drummers beating frantically and horns adding flavor any time an empty space presents itself. The fact that I can’t understand a single word of Spanish just makes it that much better. It’s that song directed to the one person in the crowd who isn’t tapping his foot, whose dour misgivings about any given thing just won’t let him enjoy the show. “Declaracion de Amor” is the song that makes this person forget he’d ever been sitting down.
Cimarron isn’t without its lesser moments. If you’ve ever had the strange desire to hear Fez from That ‘70s Show croon his way through “Old Devil Moon”, might I heartily recommend setting your CD players for track eight and preparing yourself to be dazzled. Not seemingly a singer to ever turn in a sub-par performance, Ochoa sings it quite well, but it sounds more like a caricature than an interpretive reading. But that’s all right; jazz music has long been an art form bent on presenting popular material in alternate venues, and while I’ll always choose the version of “Old Devil Moon” from Sinatra’s Songs for Swingin’ Lovers, Ochoa’s goals in his arrangement are invariably admirable.
Perhaps the best endorsement I can give Cimarron is this: in my first month as a PopMatters writer, I received five CDs from artists I’d never heard before, and Cimarron is the only item that will remain in my personal collection as something I will continue to enjoy beyond its object of review material. Or maybe a better one would be that Cimarron has proven to be the musical highlight of the year (young though it may be) for someone whose knowledge of Cuban jazz is all but nonexistent. But whatever I can say about it, I’d like to say it and stress that I mean it: Luis Mario Ochoa’s latest is a durable piece of danceable jazz that satisfies the desire for both substantial depth and boisterous good times. What more is there?