This edition of Latin Pulse has two Cuban masterpieces, an "Unplugged" compilation by a legendary Argentine rocker and a salsa (yes, salsa) tribute to the greatest rock group of all (yes, those four fab guys).
**** Cachao, "Master Sessions Vol. 2," Epic/Sony/Crescent Moon. This jewel of a follow-up to the 1994 Grammy winner by the veteran Cuban bassist and bandleader is as good as its predecessor, if not better.
Once again, Cachao and his musicians (a virtual hall of fame of Afro Cuban music, plus some younger faces) give a lesson in traditional danzon, mambo, descargas and even a soaring vocal improvisation by legendary sonero Rolando LaSerie. Though it didn't win Cachao another Grammy, it will be tough to top this one.
*** 1/2 Los Van Van, "Lo ultimo en vivo," Qbadisc. Los Van Van, Cuba's most popular dance band for the last 25 years, is perhaps the island's best-kept secret, thanks to the U.S. embargo of the country. "Lo ultimo en vivo" (The Latest, Live) is a unique live album--it contains all new songs and marks the first time the orchestra was able to record together at the same time (Cuban recording studios aren't equipped to accommodate the full 14-piece orchestra).
Bassist, composer and bandleader Juan Formell wanted to show the world what a Van Van concert is like. With the presence of such friends as singers Silvio Rodriguez and Pablo Milanes, the result is an amazing example of how an unsophisticated recording can produce a great album.
"Que sorpresa / Voy a publicar tu foto en la prensa" (What a Surprise / I'm Going to Publish Your Photo in the Press) has been No. 1 in Cuba for more than a year. An absolute must.
*** 1/2 Charly Garcia, "MTV Unplugged," SDI/Sony. From the early '70s to the mid-'80s, rock in Argentina had an undisputed king: Charly Garcia, whose legendary bands Sui Generis, La Maquina de Hacer Pajaros and Seru Giran, along with his prolific solo work, set the standard for Latin America's best-developed Spanish-language rock movement.
This CD, the first "Unplugged" release from MTV Latino, is more than a hits compilation and ranks among Garcia's best (though he forgot the lyrics in a couple of songs). An instant classic, with some of the best melodies and lyrics ever recorded in Spanish, in any genre.
*** Various artists, "Tropical Tribute to the Beatles," RMM. For its opportunism and potentially dreadful results, the mere idea of a salsa adaptation of Beatles songs is enough to make you fear for the worst. But Spain-based producer Oscar Gomez and most of the RMM roster rose to the occasion with an above-average homage that is fun, edgy and artistically serious.
Except for the elimination of harmonies in "Day Tripper" by Ray Sepulveda and a surprisingly cheesy interpretation of "And I Love Her" by Jose Alberto, the record successfully achieves its main goals, keeping the essence of the original music, adding significant arrangements and still remaining a pure salsa album.
The notion that salseros and Beatlemaniacs might discover each other via this album is nice, but it would be even nicer if it teaches the average salsa songwriters-for-hire the value of great songwriting.
Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good, recommended) and four stars (excellent).