The paths of big-band Afro-Cuban music and big-band American jazz have run parallel and intersected over the decades and now Ruben Blades adds a new chapter to this swinging history.
A native of Panama, Blades has a firm place in the pantheon of Latin music and culture. First, he was a principle in the 1978 landmark best-selling album Siembra with Willie Colon, which set a high-water mark for politically conscious music in the dance-oriented genre. Since then, Blades has also had a successful career as an actor (most recently fighting zombies on AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead) and as an activist (unsuccessfully running for president of Panama in 1994 and subsequently serving five years as Panama’s minister of tourism).
On Salswing, Blades fronts Panama’s Roberto Delgado & Orquesta, alternating between salsa tunes and American Songbook classics and at times blending the two as on “Ya No Me Duele”, which reinvents a Jeremy Bosch song, setting Spanish lyrics to a new, slow-swinging jazz arrangement.
Blades is not the first to acknowledge the relationship between jazz and Latin, or Afro-Cuban, music. The two have fed off each other and co-mingled for decades, from early 20th century New Orleans to the post-World War II period when the mambo craze filled dancefloors as jazz began to move away from being solely dance music. Cuban percussionist Chano Pazo did seminal work with Dizzy Gillespie in the late 1940s. Tito Puente combined his big band with that of Buddy Morrow for an overlooked but mighty project they called “Revolving Bandstand”. While Blades is all about breaking boundaries and defying expectations, the project is being released in three forms with one overall 45-minute version and two shorter albums that focus on the two genres.
The opening number, a remake of Blades’ early hit “Paula C”, features an insistent percussion section that carries along strings and a multi-layered brass arrangement. As it does throughout the album, the orchestra proves itself inventive and constantly interesting. As propulsive as the clave dance rhythms are here, the overall sound has a smooth pop sheen, a perfect salsa dancefloor tune that builds in excitement as it moves along like an express train.
On the album’s first swing tune, “Pennies from Heaven” — first popularized by Bing Crosby in 1936 — Blades does a mid-tempo, easygoing take reminiscent of the insouciant swing of Frank Sinatra, who recorded the song with both Nelson Riddle and Count Basie. The Delgado Orquesta’s arrangements have as much fun as the singer with the bouncy tune: playfully, precisely, and intricately weaving the various horn sub-sections together.
Blades and company keep things upbeat and fast-moving throughout the collection. The closest thing to a ballad is a bopping version of Jerome Kern’s “The Way You Look Tonight”, originally sung by Fred Astaire to Ginger Rogers in the 1936 film Swing Time, and subsequently covered by Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, and even Rod Stewart during his revisit of American classics.
The album includes two instrumentals. “Mambo Gil”, which whisks along to an Afro-Cuban clave beat but certainly has horn arrangements that sound like a classic big swing band. The album closes with “Tambo”, which begins with folkloric drumming before the brass comes in for a more contemporary salsa sound and moves into a call-and-response montuno jam session with Blades’ tenor soaring above the polyrhythmic full-band arrangement. “Do I Hear Four?” is a mid-tempo instrumental jazz tune that features a lovely extended solo from trumpeter Juan Carlos “Wichy” Lopez.
At 72, with a Harvard law degree, numerous awards, and a wildly varied career, Blades shows he still has a few surprises up the sleeve of his guayabera. Instead of doing a greatest hits album or issuing a political call to arms in our turbulent times, Blades has released a celebratory album whose aim is to get listeners moving and put smiles on their faces (with an ancillary goal of shaking up preconceptions about the separation between genres). Fronting the little-known Roberto Delgado & Orquesta, the iconic performer puts being a political leader on pause and proves himself to be an exemplary bandleader.