What an inspiration it is to see the most fearlessly original paradigm-shifter of all the salsa dura pioneers of the 70s still pushing the envelope. Ruben Blades‘ new album Salswing with Roberto Delgado & Orquesta – streaming at Spotify – is aptly titled, a lavishly symphonic latin jazz project. Blades’ voice is a bit more wintry than it was forty years ago, but he tackles the material here – an imaginative mashup of jazz standards and salsa – with his usual soul and gravitas. Listen closely and you discover that he’s overdubbed his own coros. Hearing him hit those high notes on the second track reaffirms his indominable stature as leader of the old school – which in his case makes him just as much a leader of the new school.
Delgado’s Panamanian ensemble and his colorful, edgy charts make a good match. They open with Paula C, the lushness enhanced by the Venezuela Strings Recording Ensemble. Guest Eduardo Pineda’s Rhodes piano bubbles amid the brassy gusts, trumpeter Juan Carlos “Wichy” Lopez reaching for the stratosphere and nailing it.
Blades lands somewhere between Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. in a blazing, ebullient take of Pennies from Heaven, trombone soloist Xito Lovell cascading down out of a sunburst brass break. The textures and exchanges between the reeds and brass in the instrumental Mambo Gil have grit to match their majesty, alto saxophonist Jahaziel Arrocha taking a tantalizingly brief, spiraling solo.
Blades goes into nuanced crooner mode for Ya No Me Duele over the bandleader’s strolling bass pulse, Tom Kubis adding flourishes on alto sax amid the towering brass. The vocals on Watch What Happens are bordering on breathless, effectively driving home the song’s ironclad optimism over the sudden swells of the orchestra. Blades reaches for similar intensity, but with a more imploring feel in Cobarde and its intricate, understated polyrhythms.
Lopez’s balmy, straightforward trumpet solo flies over an elegant midtempo swing beat in Do I Hear Four?, the group’s counterpoint rising toward inferno levels. There’s a little more drama and mystery in Blades’ voice in Canto Niche, Juan Berna switching between piano and echoey Rhodes. The Way You Look Tonight is the closest thing to a coyly seductive, straight-up fifties Sinatra swing tune here,
Blades winds up the record with a couple of slinky barn-burners. Ricky Rodriguez’s low-key, tumbling piano and Alejandro “Chichisin” Castillo’s smoky baritone sax anchor the dynamically-shifting, colorful Contrabando, Raul Aparicio’s accordion popping in unexpectedly. Similarly, Tambó rises from a streetcorner intro from the percussion section to an insistent, driving oldschool salsa groove. A titanic achievement from a huge, semi-rotating ensemble that also includes percussionists Ademir Berrocal, Raul Rivera, Carlos Perez Bido, Jose Ramon Guerra and Luis Mitil; Francisco Delvecchio and Avenicio Nunez on trombones; Carlos Ubarte, Ivan Navarro and Luis Carlos Perez on saxes; Milton Salcedo, Dino Nugent, Ceferino Caban and Dario Boente on piano; Carlos Quiros on bass; Carlos Camacho on vibes; and Abraham Dubarron on guitar.