Rubén Blades, JLCO Blend Musical Ideals

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The cover art for Una Noche Con Rubén Blades, a live recording featuring the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra backing up vocalist Rubén Blades, perfectly encapsulates the music’s collaborative core.

Off in the background of the photo is trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, the orchestra’s artistic director and the foundational support for projects like the three-night run of shows in 2014 that celebrated Latin jazz and Blades, one of the genre’s stars. But it’s the two men standing in front of Marsalis who gave Una Noche its sound and spirit.

Naturally, Blades dominates the picture, just as he commands the performance of songs that made him a star in the Latin music world on this album. Over to the left is Carlos Henriquez, the Bronx-born bassist who has been playing with the orchestra since 1998. He’s almost squeezed out of the picture, but without him, those shows and this album might not have come to fruition.

Having already overseen tributes to Latin jazz giants like Tito Puente and Cachao, Henriquez suggested Blades as the orchestra’s next honoree. And he helped solidify the setlist and arrange all the material, a job that required pulling some of Blades’ songs, like “El Cantante” and “Sin Tu Cariño,” closer to the swing of big band jazz, and adding Latin flair to “Begin The Beguine” and “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.”

“Basically, I took both cultures and I dissected them,” Henriquez said, speaking from his home in New York. “I listened to Rubén’s tunes and arrangements, then started taking bits of the history of jazz and took the history of Latin music—Machito, Eddie Palmieri, Tito Puente—and taking little bits of it. Then, all of a sudden, I started to hear the arrangements.”

The music then became a blend of styles and ideals. Augmented by percussionists Bobby Allende, Marc Quiñones and Carlos Padron, JLCO smoothly flows into the warm waters of Latin sounds, playing with undeniable brio and providing the perfect foil for Blades. The 70-year-old artist and actor didn’t just find his way through fresh arrangements of songs that, in some cases, have been part of his live repertoire for four decades, but also gamely put his own spin on Gershwin and Cole Porter standards.

“You’re playing with arguably the best band there is,” Blades said of JLCO. “You can’t just show up there and do karaoke. But I try to do it the way I felt. I think that’s what the orchestra respects: that you do it the way you feel it.”

Not that these songs were completely foreign to Blades. As a youngster growing up in Panama, his family was one of the few with a record player in their home, and his father would bring home LPs by Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. Blades absorbed those albums and in the process taught himself English. He also was a dedicated radio listener, latching onto the freeform spirit of the stations in his home country and sopping up sounds of all stripes along the way.

All of that experience and knowledge made Blades a perfect fit for the Lincoln Center shows, and made him a willing, excited participant. But the root of it all lies, he said, in a desire to pay heed to, and play some small role in, the moments in history when Latin music and jazz intersect.

“Many people, and I include a lot of jazz people, don’t understand that connection,” Blades said. “Luis Russell is a Panamanian guy and he went to New Orleans, and he was working with King Oliver and Louis Armstrong. Alberto Socarras, who was not only my teacher in New York but was Wynton’s teacher, as well, he had the first jazz flute solo with the Clarence Williams Orchestra. Even Dizzy Gillespie was working with Socarras. So, it’s not so odd that a salsa guy all of a sudden sits in with a jazz orchestra.”

Also staying true to Blades’ history, both he and Henriquez see a political element to celebrating Latin music on Una Noche, given the current political climate in the United States.

“It’s an affirmation of what this country is about,” Blades said. “This country is about inclusion. It’s about experimentation. It’s about curiosity. It’s about intellectual freedom. It’s about spiritual expression. Spirits and minds don’t need passports and visas. You have all these people getting together to create something that’s going to move people and hopefully help them feel less alienated. This is the time to affirm what the majority of this country believes, which is that we are here all together and we should move forward together.” DB



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September 2019
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