Rubén Blades, the singer-songwriter behind some of the greatest salsa of all time, attempts a bold merger on his latest album, Salswing!, moving between the strutting, brassy sheen of swing and the driving, blasting, hyperkinetic salsa that made him a legend.
In the liner notes accompanying the album, which Blades made with Roberto Delgado & Orquesta, he announces his intention to “eliminate the stereotype that affirms that we are conditioned to only exist artistically within specific boundaries according to our nationality.” Blades later adds, “All albums today limit themselves to a specific musical direction to fill a specific market niche. It is an economic imperative, not an artistic one.”
In truth, Salswing! is less a merger than a series of zigzags from salsa to swing and back again. Blades takes on songs made famous by Frank Sinatra and Tito Puente in addition to revisiting his classic “Paula C,” originally released in 1979. Salswing! is stylized in a way that Sinatra would surely appreciate — in the 1950s, he had a whole series of records with titles ending in exclamation points, from Swing Easy! to Songs for Swingin’ Lovers! to A Swingin’ Affair! — and Blades offers a fine imitation of the Sinatra croon.
But it’s the salsa that has staying power. Best on Salswing! is Blades’ rendition of “Tambó,” a song that he wrote decades ago; it was released by Pete “El Conde” Rodriguez in 1977. (Blades has written a number of songs for other acts, including Héctor Lavoe’s “El Cantante.”) The Salswing! version of the track is ferocious, opening with a skirmish between different percussive instruments before horns make an entrance like firemen hacking into a burning house. But all this is just preamble: not long after the 90-second mark, “Tambó” really takes off, as the band rockets through a series of tight vamps while Blades and his backup singers make call-and-response sound like a swashbuckling duel.
For the listeners who lean more towards one genre than the other, Blades is releasing two alternate versions of the album — Salsa Plus! on April 23, and Swing! on April 30. But in the liner notes, he makes it clear that categorization is besides the point. “When people ask me what kind of musician I am, I just stare at them,” Blades writes. “When they ask me what do I play, my answer is: music!”
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