Various ‘Fania Records 1964-1980: The Original Sound of Latin New York’ 2LP/2CD/DIG (Strut) 5/5

Fania was to Latin music what Blue Note was to jazz and Studio One was to reggae music; the premier label by which all other recordings in the same genre were compared with. It had the most impressive of artist rosters, a distinctive new sound from the mid-1960s onwards (helped by the engineering expertise of Jon Fausty), iconic art covers from Izzy Sanabria and a tireless promoter in co-founder (alongside musician and producer Johnny Pacheco) and owner Jerry Masucci. Over the years numerous record companies have exploited the extensive back catalogue with anthologies of individual artists and classic album re-issues. This latest various artist compilation does a pretty good job of presenting a cross-section of the label’s musical heritage and covers all the essential songs that it is famed for with the occasional discovery.

In the early days of the 1960s Latin music was dominated by Cuban sounds such as the flute and string driven charanga. Fania at first replicated the formula (Pacheco’s first Fania albums were instrumental charanga and very successful commercially at that), but started to forge its own identity as the new salsa and boogaloo sounds emerged. Ray Barretto scored chart success with his take on Latin soul ‘Mercy mercy baby’ while Bobby Valentin had one of the more convincing slices of the sub-genre with ‘Use it before you lose it’. The boogaloo, however, was a short-lived phenomenon and it was the harder hitting salsa groove that really defined Fania with a pared down number of musicians replacing the older and by the mid-1960s somewhat tired traditional big band format that worked beat under the mambo beat of the 1950s. Indeed the very term salsa was almost synonymous with Fania and that in itself is testimony to the label’s success. A number of new artists such as Willie Colon, Cheo Feliciano and Hector Lavoe, predominantly of Puerto Rican origin (though not exclusively Johnny Pacheco is a native of the Domincan Republic, while Rubén Blades is Panamanian), emerged. Collectively the musicians and singers were known as the Fania All Stars, recording a legendary live performance at the Cheetah for Fania and for which audio and visual highlights can be enjoyed on the documentary ‘Our Latin thing’ and the seminal ‘Quitate tu’ is included here. Anthemic titles captivated Latino populations in the States and Latin America more generally at a time of political activism and included herein are Hector Lavoe’s ‘Mi gente’ (’My people’) and the even more personal ‘El cantante’ (’The singer’). Puerto Ricans and other Hispanic migrants in the States could personally identify with the characters portrayed in these songs and this gave them added potency even when the instrumentation was immediately intoxicating and appealing to non-Spanish speaking audiences. By the mid-1970s word had spread that Fania was a label to be reckoned with and salsa started to attract an audience way beyond its natural constituency. The pairing of Willie Colon and Ruben Blades did much to promote salsa and a new form that was not afraid to tackle social issues. Both ‘Pablo Pueblo’ and ‘Pedro Navaja’ were initially chastised for being too long in length and too morbid in social content, but both became massive hits and showed that Latin music need not simply sing of happiness and love. A harder musical edge was one characteristic of salsa recorded in New York and aimed at the downtrodden barrios of Spanish Harlem. Percussionist Roberto Roena typified that sound and ‘Que se sepa’ is definitive salsa as is ‘Indestructible’ by Ray Barretto who in the late 1960s and throughout the early to mid-1970s changed attack and became a disciple of the harder hitting salsa beat. Instrumental examples of salsa dura have wisely been highlighted on the compilation such as the wonderful ‘The hustler’ by Willie Colon and ‘Mambo de Bataan’ by Joe Bataan. Other pairings enjoyed commercial success and in the case of Richie Ray and Bobby Cruz, became household names in Columbia. Their offering ‘Sonido bestial’ is a much loved song. Older Cuban musicians, who had become exiled in the States after enjoying successful careers in the 1950s, Celia Cruz and Mongo Santamaria, joined the Fania team (albeit on the sister Vaya label – Fania also bought up the rights to some of the older labels like Tico), regularly performed with the Fania All Stars on their tours and albums, as well as pursuing highly successful individual careers in the 1970s. Mongo Santamaria is represented by a traditional orisha tune ‘O mi shango’ (though on Vaya recordings he pioneered Latin-funk sounds).

Celia Cruz paired up with Willie Colon as producer on several albums and enjoyed her greatest success thus far with ‘Quimbara’’ being just one of a bevy of hit songs. If Fania ran out of steam by the late 1970s with the advent of disco (which itself borrowed heavily on Latin beats – one label Salsoul even has the term salsa as part of its name and promoted disco and Latin artists in equal measure), it would by the mid-1980s start to be seen as an ideal re-issue label and gain even greater notoriety internationally. With the full 2CD comes a thirty-page booklet that illuminates the history of the label. Ideal early summer listening and a fine summation of Latin music more generally over two decades.

Tim Stenhouse

Marsalis Family ‘Music Redeems’ (Marsalis/Universal) 3/5

Conceived of in order to support the creation of a specialist music centre for jazz musicians in New Orleans within the New Orleans habitat musicians village in the wake of hurricane Katrina, this benefit concert brought together the entire Marsalis family to share an evening’s entertainment at the JFK Center in Washington D.C. in June 2009. Special guests included Harry Connick Jr. on piano and longtime Wynton Marsalis drummer Herlin Riley. Proceedings vary between some classic jazz interpretations in duet, quintet and septet formations, the odd slice of poetry and build up to a fitting finale with some traditional New Orleans musical fare. Perhaps the biggest musical surprise of the evening is the inclusion of vibes played very ably by Jason Marsalis, who is better known as a drummer. On the excellent James Black composition ‘Monkey puzzle’ tenor and vibes combine well on a moody rendition and it is a pity that the vibes were used for this number only, so convincing is Jason’s performance. Branford Marsalis impresses with a warm tenor solo on ‘Teo’ while father Ellis has the opportunity to take an extended piano solo here. An upbeat ‘Donna Lee’ features Wynton on muted harmon on a quintet number. Jason returns in his more conventional role as a drummer and delivers some typically New Orleans-style roll licks on ‘At the house, in da pocket’ while the horn phrasing on this piece sounds as if it is in the distinctly Jazz Messengers territory. Audience handclapping is in evidence on the call and response number ‘The second line’ which reinforces the New Orleans ambience and has Wynton sounding out on trumpet. Both Ellis and Connick Jr. play along together on ‘After’ and ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’. All in all a solid live performance for the worthiest of causes.

Tim Stenhouse

Thelonius Monk ‘Monk’s Music’ (Original Jazz Classics/Universal) 5/5

Monk was a mature forty-year old musician by the time this classic recording was made in 1957 and one might have expected a faithful, yet unspectacular revisiting of compositions, some of which were written a decade earlier. Nothing could be further from the truth. Part of the reason lies in the wonderful line up of musicians including John Coltrane and Coleman Hawkins on tenor saxophones and Art Blakey on drums, not to mention the much underrated Ray Copeland on trumpet. Another factor may be that Coltrane was entering into a new phase of his career with ‘Blue Train’ recorded around the same time. However, unquestionably something special happened in the studio for these magical sessions and fortunately we have it for posterity with on this new re-edition. Well known pieces such as ‘Off minor’, ‘Epistrophy’ and ‘Ruby my dear’ receive loving treatments that breath new life into them. A then new composition was added, ‘Crepuscule with Nellie’, which sounds as fresh now as on the day it was first performed. Of the bonus tracks, by far the most significant is the thirteen and half minute ‘Blues for tomorrow’ with an extended solo from Copeland and a definite big band feel with the brass working in unison in the intro. It can only have been the time factor, which prevented this superb slice of jazz from featuring on the original album. Informative new sleeve notes courtesy of jazz writer Ashley Kahn.

Tim Stenhouse

David Murray Cuban Ensemble ‘Plays Nat King Cole En Español’ (Emarcy/Universal) 4/5

This is one of the year’s unexpected projects and likely to be one of the most enjoyable listens into the bargain. Nat King Cole recorded some of his most loved music when he decided to devote two albums to the Latin American songbook and sing for the first time in Spanish. His unique and quirky phrasing enchanted Cubans in particular, even though Cole’s understanding and mastery of Spanish was limited, and saxophonist David Murray has had the considerable foresight to re-investigate this repertoire. The original idea for Cole to record in Spanish was inspired by a conversation with Cole’s friend and manager Carlos Gastel. Fast forward some fifty years and David Murray has enlisted some of Latin America’s finest musicians and recorded them in Buenos Aires with further strings being added in Portugal. The result is an irresistible take on some of the old chestnuts. Take the famous ‘Quizas, quizas, quizas’ which modern day listeners may have heard Nat’s original version of on the soundtrack to Wong Kar Wai’s ‘In the mood for love’ film. In the new version, Argentine Nuevo tango singer Daniel Malingo takes over vocal duties with a raucous delivery that recalls a Spanish-speaking Tom Waits, or Paulo Conte. A leisurely mambo is devoted to the Cuban bass maestro appropriately titled ‘Cachaito’ on which Murray plays bass clarinet and tenor with lush strings while Murray plays a breathy tenor solo on the cha-cha-cha ‘Piel canela’. Possibly the strongest cut of all is the opener ‘El bodeguero’ which at almost nine and half minutes features fine soloing from Murray very much in the Ben Webster lineage and excellent ensemble playing. On this album Murray succeeds in really getting inside the old tunes and giving them his personalised imprint. Incisive and lengthy inner sleeve notes from jazz authority Gary Giddins place the session in a wider historical perspective.

Tim Stenhouse

Various ‘Our Favourite Songs Beres Hammond Sings’ 2CD (VP) 4/5

Singer-songwriter Beres Hammond has enjoyed a long and distinguished career, starting off in the early-mid 1970s with roots band Zap Pow, and then gradually progressing into more soulful territory as a solo artist. What has possibly been forgotten about his career is the extent to which his hit songs have been self-composed. This new tribute album seeks to put the record straight and in the process showcases a number of up and coming new singers from Jamaica, It was a self-titled Willie Lindo mid-1970s album that attracted Hammond’s singing craft to the strictly soul audience and here a trio of numbers from the classic album are reworked. Of particular note is the lovely take on ‘One step ahead’ by Nadine Sutherland and ‘If only you know’ by Hezron while the harmonies on ‘Groovy little thing’ interpreted here by Taurus Riley impress above all. The soulful take on ‘Love from a distance’ by Luckie D incorporates the ‘I’m so in love’ riddim. On ‘Reggae calling’ Marcia Griffiths offers up a typically bubbly and indeed rootsy performance. Of all the reworkings, by far the most radical is the spaced out ‘Step aside’ by Tessane which here is transformed into a distinctly dance feel number and effective at that. The majority of the productions are by Donovan Germain, though on ‘Emptiness’ by Jah Cure Fatis Burrell takes over production chores to good effect. Overall a faithful and successful celebration of the Beres Hammond songbook.

Tim Stenhouse