How’s this for an idea? Take some of the best-known tunes from the Swing Era (nearly all taken from Gershwin, Ellington, or Glen Miller) and perform them in the manner of a traditional Cuban night club orchestra. What is the likely result of such a project?
Three possibilities would seem to suggest themselves. Firstly, you could produce an album of such campiness that devotees of kitsch would sell their signed Liberace placemats to own a copy. Secondly, you might get the perfect soundtrack to a Coppola made Batista/Lansky/Luciano biopic, one redolent of a soon to be swept away decadence. Thirdly, you might actually end up with a novel take on some overplayed pieces and further confirmation of the seemingly bottomless creative pool that Cuba appears to currently possess.
A good case can be made for the existence of all three outcomes as far as Cuba Swings is concerned. The opening track “Satin Doll” is reminiscent of the Tijuana Brass at their most perky and irritating. “In the Mood”, cringe-worthy enough in its own right, plunges to new depths of cheesiness. “Take the A Train” is one of the 20th century’s great tunes. So is “Guantanamera”. Putting the two of them together is not exactly the sort of idea that makes you wonder “Why did no one think of doing that before?”. All very bizarre. Actually, although the first two are dreadful that latter collision works quite well, amazingly enough.
And that is the thing about this set. Just when it has descended into embarrassment something pops up to save it. Often it is Torres’ own expertly handled trombone, which sounds as ripe and fruity as a September orchard. On other occasions it is the singers who raise the tone. A number of the songs have been given Spanish lyrics and the vocalists, Lazaro Reyes and Maria Elena Lazo, are outstanding. Reyes turns “Rhapsody in Blue” into a gorgeous folk song, so authentic that I suspect it has little to do with Gershwin. Lazo on “My Prayer” produces an atmospheric sophistication that cries out for that night-club scene where the gangsters debate what to do about the Castroite forces gathering strength in the countryside.
There is not much real fusion of styles. The big band classics stay resolutely Yanqui and the Cubanisms traditional in the extreme. The one exception is, oddly, “Summertime” — the least tractable of warhorses, one would have thought. Fine singing and excellent acoustic guitar from Pancho Amat make this the freshest and quirkiest version since Billie Stewart rampaged through it in 1966. “Perfidia”, being fairly Latinesque to start with, also benefits from the Torres treatment — Julio Padron’s trumpet taking especial advantage.
Torres’ concept certainly does take some getting used to and I think a sign of the folly of the project is that each time the familiar melodies come back there is a feeling of disappointment. The album works best when it allows you to forget its raison d’etre and simply becomes a well played, albeit somewhat old fashioned, Cuban session. Then it is very engaging, demonstrating a pleasant mixture of nostalgia and liveliness.
To sum up what is a very peculiar record: the musicianship is marvelous, the arrangements a bit too touristy at times and the central concept a mistake but one that is frequently overcome. Apart from Torres’ eloquent phrasing, jazz fans will get less from the record than followers of Cuban music who will be able to appreciate the seasoned skills of all involved. The assembled musicians, veterans of the Cuban music scene for the most part, are all worth noting for future reference with Amat and Lazo probably the pick. Mind you, many listeners will never find out, the ludicrous “Satin Doll” having stopped them dead in their tracks.
If you can make your way past that abomination, and you have any fondness for the fashionable Latin sound, then there are definite pleasures to be had, the lingering aura of corniness notwithstanding. You will also have found yourself enjoying one of the oddest releases in recent months. I think I did.