When a couple of English blokes decide to dub themselves the Latin Project, you might well raise an eyebrow at it. When you discover that their music is a blend of electronic club beats and various Latin musical styles, you might reasonably be even more dubious. The paths to Latin/electronica fusion are all pretty well worn, after all, dating back to the earliest days of summer clubbing on Ibiza and the advent of the "Balearic sound". What are the odds that these young upstarts have anything new to add?
Well, whatever the odds were, Jez Colin and Matt Cooper have beaten them, because with Nueva Musica they've released what is so far the year's best grab-bag of club-friendly salsa and samba-soaked beats. Ranging from straight-up Latin house joints that would do Masters at Work proud, to jazzy breakbeat numbers that give Jazzanova a run for their money, it's an eclectic, entertaining and sunny disc, inconsistent at times but filled with more than enough highlights to keep fans of blissed-out, beachside vibes kicking up their flip-flops.
Colin and Cooper began the Latin Project as a one-off collaboration with flamenco guitarist Marc Antoine; together these three cooked up a 2001 12-inch track called "En Fuego" that set Antoine's spiky acoustic guitar licks against a bouncy backdrop of house beats, synths, and a child's eerie, ululating chant. Inspired by the success of that track, they continued to develop more songs with primarily Latin collaborators, expanding on the basic template of "En Fuego" to incorporate live vocals, percussion, horns and increasingly sophisticated beats. The richer results of those efforts can be heard immediately on the opener "Lei Lo Lai", which builds on the Spanish guitar/house fusion of "En Fuego" by adding heaps of percussion, a strident horn section, a great lead vocal from former Tito Puente sideman Freddie Crespo, and several jazzy breaks highlighted by the smooth electric piano of Cooper himself. Think of it as a smoother, housier version of Kinky, full of the same restless, shapeshifting energy, but decidedly less brash in tone.
"Musica de Amor" uses the same set of musicians as "Lei Lo Lai", but with jazzier results; the beat here abandons house's steady thump in favor of the syncopated rhythms of jazz fusion and broken beat, and the horns (uncredited but presumably the same guys from "Lei Lo Lai") really start to show some swing. A new female guest vocalist, Creste, joins Freddie Crespo in making the most of some silly Spanish lyrics (lots of very thrown-together-sounding "amores" and "bailas" and "noches" and whatnot), but what really saves the track is a sweet jazzy break in which Creste suddenly croons, in English, "a little bit closer now", before the horns and drums really take the track into full-blown Dizzy Gillespie, Afro-Cuban jazz territory. What really jumps out at you here, and elsewhere on tracks like the gorgeous closer "Rio Negro", is Matt Cooper's drumming; he's a solid keyboardist, but he's a downright brilliant drummer, who can swing with the gusto of a veteran jazzman, walk the rhythmic tightrope of some trickier Latin rhythms, and keep time with the Swiss-watch precision of programmed electronic tracks, sometimes all in the same song. He's the best of numerous excellent live musicians (followed closely by Jez Colin, whose popping electric bass injects a little funk into several numbers) who give the Latin Project an added dimension of organic groove that too much modern dance music lacks.
Elsewhere, Colin and Cooper's music works best when it goes for groovy midtempo jams that let the Latin rhythms really take over. "Universal" combines a Cuban-flavored montuño piano vamp and bright horns with a percussion-heavy bridge straight out of Brazilian Carnival. "Clouds" is a brisk samba with more piano montuños, breezy synths and vocals that conjure images of panoramic sunrises over the beaches of Rio. "Sonhando" slows things down to a jazzy breakbeat but keeps it spicy with skittering percussion fragments and the atmospheric vocals of Joël Virgel and Katia Moraes, who are used to great effect throughout the album.
A few tracks that strive to expand the Latin Project's musical palette even further don't work as well, but they're hardly bad, just less effective than such supremely groovy numbers as "Clouds" and "Lei Lo Lai". "Estoy", featuring Peruvian vocalist Violetta Villacorta and guitarist/turntablist Andreas Allen, is a lackluster attempt at dub, bogged down by a cookie-cutter backbeat and vocals so airy they leave no impression at all. "Brazilian Love Affair" is a too-faithful cover of a George Duke tune, very Latin jazz lite compared to the rest of the album, even pumped up with a hint of a house backbeat, while "Windows", the album's most offbeat inclusion, features a vocal by, of all people, Terence Trent D'Arby, now officially calling himself Sananda. It starts off promisingly with some atmospheric, jangly guitar, congas, and Sananda's raspy vocals, but it proves to be a split-personality failure, veering into handbag house territory on the chorus as the vocals suddenly go all falsetto and the piano goes all jangly and Deee-lite-esque.
Still, even on a song like "Windows", at least the Latin Project's music is gutsy and inventive, and its tight rhythmic sense never falters as it cobbles together a variety of beats, both Latin and European. All of which definitely earns these two English blokes the right to go on calling themselves the Latin Project, and hopefully sell a lot of records in the process.