Rubén Blades & the Latin-jazz Mix: Never Gets Old

Rubén Blades at Jazz at Lincoln Center
Rubén Blades at Jazz at Lincoln Center

“I’ve known many jazz standards since I was 14,” said Rubén Blades to the well-heeled crowd at the Jazz at Lincoln Center venue Rose Hall. Spontaneously he launched into a histrionic imitation of Sinatra singing “Summer Wind,” then a nasal send-up of Sammy Davis, Jr. “I used to just stand on the streets in Panama City and do that and it freaked people out.” The crowd laughed, likely surprised at how “American” the great sonero was, while Latinos no doubt recognized themselves in the double consciousness we’ve all been raised with: families steeped in Latin American ways, streets that demanded we be hip to the mainstream zeitgeist.

The notes to Rubén Blades’s recent three-night stand at Jazz at Lincoln Center made it clear what his idea behind the show was: “a MIXTURA of different influences.” He aimed to engage in a mixing process that described his particular form of mestizaje, with its nascent roots in the moment that his father brought home a bulky record player with 10 records from the US pop music canon. It was an ambitious product for Blades, who managed to transcend his status as Fania salsa icon in the 1980s by signing a contract with Elektra records and become a de facto “world” artist when most “tropical” music was not considered authentic or exotic enough to be “world.”

While those Elektra recordings included classics like Buscando América and Escenas, in 1988 the label released Nothing But the Truth, a collection of songs all sung in English, and it’s safe to say this one went way under the radar. Salseros singing in English has never been a wildly popular genre, but this time, because it was a collaboration with Wynton Marsalis and the JALC Orchestra, and because the songs were jazz standards, the show had a strong feel of momentousness and statement-making.

So here was Blades crooning tunes like Harold Arlen and Truman Capote’s “Don’t Like Goodbyes,” George Gershwin’s “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” and Otis Blackwell’s “Fever,” the latter sung in a duet with his wife, Luba Mason, an accomplished Broadway singer. Some of the standards were sung straight up, others featured shifts in arrangements from swing to rumba, walking bass strut to guaguancó, the kind of thing that Jerry and Andy González used to do in the Fort Apache Band. It was not insignificant that Carlos Herniquez, bassist and music director for the JALC Orchestra, was masterminding these changes as Andy once did, taking the listener on a seamless journey between parallel and interweaved moments in jazz and popular music history.

Blades augmented this story by reminding us of these antecedents, most famously the story of how Afro-Cuban trumpeter Mario Bauzá came to Harlem in the 1930s and landed a job as the musical director of the Chick Webb orchestra, and how Dizzy Gillespie played with percussionist Chano Pozo and Charlie Parker recorded with one of the three legendary mambo king bands, Machito and his Afro-Cubans. Given the curious omission of this history from Ken Burns’s classic Jazz documentary series, it was likely an eye-opener to a mainstream New York audience not often asked to confront just how deeply American jazz, pop, soul, rock, and r&b are tied to Afro-Cuban conventions.

While the band’s performance was stunning in spots, Blades didn’t always appear comfortable with the standards. At points the band seemed to be eclipsing his voice, which was probably a sound-mixing problem, but there was also a kind of disconnect between Blades’s intuitive clave and jazz’s blues foundation. Early on he quipped jokingly about the JALC Orchestra putting some fear in him, something he hadn’t experienced in a while, and it wasn’t clear if it was a big joke or the seeds of an uncomfortable truth.

As expected, Blades was in top form when belting out salsa classics like”Ban Ban Quere” and “Sin tu Cariño, invoking his principal vocal influence, the late Cheo Feliciano, shouting out to collaborators like Willie Colón and Louie Ramírez, as well as the conga giant Ray Barretto. He really began to hit his stride with “El Cantante,” the song he donated to the voice of salsa, Héctor Lavoe, who he said “sang it better than I ever could.” Here Blades invoked the spirit of Lavoe in the tradition of the Yoruban religious ceremonies that Afro-Caribbean music is based on, and created a moving memorial. “Death begins when we forget, so by remembering Héctor, we keep him alive,” he intoned.

teleprompter at Rubén Blades rehearsal
teleprompter at Rubén Blades rehearsal

The evening’s last third was the most riveting, beginning with an effortless, rousing medley of the cha cha cha “Ligia Elena,” which calls out Latin American racism in a frank yet playful way, the anthemic “Juan Pachanga,” and “Número 6,” a song he wrote when he was working in the mailroom at Fania trying to break out, about waiting for the 6 train in New York’s 1970s recession. The band naturally threw in a quote from “Take the A Train,” adding to mythical convergence of jazz and Latin that the evening alluded to.

The obligatory rendition of “Pedro Navaja” and its roots in the Kurt Weill tune from Three Penny Opera, as well as “Mack the Knife,” Bronx-born Bobby Darin’s 1959 unexpected top 10 hit rounded out the evening. Blades made a point that the protagonist of this little morality tale was a woman wielding an assassin’s weapon, a dramatic actor rather than victim, as well as how the song represented the peak of the Fania era, expanding the genre from short songs about mulata-lust to the bursts of social commentary fostered by the Blades-Colón collaboration. The Spanish-speaking couple in the row behind me burst into a Latin American singalong of the lyrics, and the swaying and smiling was infectious.

Henríquez, who Blades credits with the idea for the collaboration, received an emotional tribute from his fellow band members, and he addressed the audience, marveling at the old days at salsa palace Club Broadway with his doting mom, his humble Bronx upbringing, and the fact that he had been “living with Rubén’s music since before I was born.” It was an extraordinary moment where his talents were recognized, symbolizing the idea that there wasn’t really such a great disparity between either end of this jazz-salsa mixture, that Afro-descendants were involved every step of the way, and it was more of a greater idea of family coming together rather than some culture clash resolved through the universal language of music.

The encore, “Patria,” Blades’s poetic impressions on what it means to be Panamanian was subdued and quietly brilliant, punctuated by a remarkable Marsalis solo. Most of the JALC Orchestra was gone, as well as about 1/3 of the audience, leaving only Blades, his invited percussion contingent (Bobby Allende, Marc Quiñones, and Carlos Padrón), Henríquez, and Marsalis to write the final coda. Fans rushed to the stage after it was over to shake Blades’s hand, and one wondered how many more times we might see something like this, how many years the old guard of salsa and jazz had left.

“People say things to me like ‘you’re getting old man,'” Blades had murmured earlier on, acknowledging that most of his life was behind him. “I just tell them, ‘What’s the alternative’?”

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