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Guest artists help Los Lobos keep the fire

Stewart Oksenhorn
Los Lobos, with Cesar Rosas, left, and Conrad Lozano, has released its latest CD, "The Ride." Aspen Times photo/Stewart Oksenhorn.
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Repeatedly over the last few years, I have heard of the Latino explosion here in the U.S. – that the Hispanic population, the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population, will make up something like 20 percent of the country’s residents. Accompanying the growth in population will be the music. I’m anticipating it by familiarizing myself with some sounds from the Latin world.

Following are reviews of some recent releases.

Los Lobos, “The Ride”

produced by Los Lobos (Hollywood Records)

Los Lobos has developed one of the strongest identities in rock ‘n’ roll, a mix of edgy, avant-garde rock, Mexicali accents and straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll. So when I heard that the band was heading down the guest-star route for its latest album, I wasn’t worried that Los Lobos would go the path taken by so many others, diluting their sound for the sake of recognition and sales.

As always, Los Lobos has justified my faith. Elvis Costello, Ruben Blades, Richard Thompson, Tom Waits and more come along for “The Ride,” and instead of watering down the music, the guests fit right in there. They even seem to inspire the band to greater heights: “Charmed” features no guest stars, but would Los Lobos have come up with this heavy, experimental blues if Dave Alvin and Tom Waits didn’t appear elsewhere on the record?

Without the invited players, Los Lobos surely would not have revisited and revised a host of their past plums, as they do on “The Ride.” Elvis Costello lends his voice to a slowed-down, stately version of “Matter of Time.” Soul singer Bobby Womack fronts a splendid take on “Wicked Rain,” which is paired in a medley with his own “Across 110th Street.”

Los Lobos lean toward their harder side on collaborations with Thompson (the pounding guitar workout “Wreck of the Carlos Rey”) and Café Tacuba (the edgy Tex-Mex rocker “La Venganza de Los Pelados”). And “Kitate,” featuring Waits, is a strange but lively pastiche of mariachi, ska, carnival and more.

“The Ride” is made of some mighty parts – not the least Los Lobos themselves, a group of buds from the East L.A. barrio who have long transcended their roots as border rockers to become one of America’s great rock bands. It is a measure of their power that they can take an eclectic selection of guest players and use each of them to extend their own sound.

Yerba Buena, “President Alien”

produced by Andres Levin (Razor & Tie)

If there is a leading name in the Ameri-Latin avant-garde, it is Andres Levin. The Venezualan-born, New York-based producer, songwriter and instrumentalist has given Latin flair to albums by David Byrne and Arto Lindsay, and worked with Latin acts Caetano Veloso, Aterciopelados and Carlinhos Brown. He was also the principal producer of “Red Hot + Riot,” the exceptional 2002 tribute to late African singer Fela Kuti.

With “President Alien,” the 2003 debut album by his New York collective Yerba Buena, Levin takes a variety of Latin styles – there are hints of Cuba, Puerto Rico and all of South America – mixes in a touch of jazz and a heavy dose of Afrobeat, and folds it all into a modern, urban American sensibility. With dozens of musicians participating, including trumpeter Roy Hargrove, drummer Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez, guitarist Mark Ribot and bassist Meshell Ndegeocello, it runs the risk of getting out of control. But Levin is a master, and turns “President Alien” into a dense, action-packed party, the sound of the Latinization of the U.S. This defines the cutting edge of Latin fusion, and ranks with the finest of Afro-Latin recordings.

Yerba Buena appears at Jazz Aspen’s June Festival next month, performing on the free stage at Wagner Park and at late-night club shows.

Bio Ritmo, “Bio Ritmo”

produced by Brian Paulson and Bio Ritmo

Nine-piece American band Bio Ritmo makes no claims to being avant-garde. Their music is a throwback to the original Nuyorican salsa made by Puerto Rican transplants to New York in the ’60s and ’70s. Bio Ritmo has basically one mode on its self-titled, fourth CD – full-bore, percussion-and-horn-driven polyrhythmic dance music. But if your looking to keep a dance floor moving, this will do the trick.

Mike Marshall & Jovino Santos Neto, “Serenata”

produced by Marshall and Neto

Mike Marshall & Choro Famoso, “Mike Marshall & Choro Famoso”

produced by Marshall (Adventure Music)

String master Mike Marshall has long been a fan of Brazilian sounds. On the first of these two CDs on his own Adventure Music label, he teams with Brazilian pianist/flutist Jovino Santos Neto to play the music of another Brazilian, composer and instrumentalist Hermeto Pascoal. The music, all instrumental, is delicate and emotional, focused on the intricate interplay between the two musicians.

On the second of these, Marshall assembles a group of San Francisco Bay area musicians to play the choro style, a Brazilian music form that dates back a century. The rhythms are recognizably South American, but there is also a heavy presence of clarinet that provides a European element. With its nylon string guitars and percussions, “Mike Marshall & Choro Famoso” is livelier than “Serenata,” though it is still gentle music, with the emphasis on the lovely melodies. When it does get cooking, as on “Carioca Nights,” it is outstanding.

Gato Barbieri, “Bolivia” and “Under Fire”

produced by Bob Thiele (Bluebird)

Argentinian saxophonist Leandro “Gato” Barbieri was introduced to American jazz audiences in the mid-60s, when he appeared on the debut albums by trumpeter Don Cherry and bassist Charlie Haden. He began recording under his own name in 1969.

These two albums – “Under Fire,” recorded in 1971, and “Bolivia,” recorded in 1973 but both released in ’73 and packaged here on a single disc – catch Barbieri at a high point. Though clearly inspired by Coltrane in its free-flowing structure and intensity, the music is also heavily influenced by Latin American sounds. “El Parana,” named for a major South American river, brings up images of the rain forest; “Yo Le Canto a la Luna” has a tango feel.

Barbieri has a major cast of sidemen here. Lonnie Liston Smith is the pianist throughout; also appearing on most tracks are Brazilian percussionist Airto Moreira and bassist Stanley Clarke, central figures in the jazz-fusion movement, and guitarist John Abercrombie.

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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