Afro-Cuban music takes up a significant chunk of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis songbook. But when Rubén Blades joined the JLCO in 2014 for an extraordinary series of performances, the Orchestra turned into a full-on salsa band.
Blades—the salsa giant and nine-time GRAMMY® Award-winning singer, songwriter, actor, and activist—took the JLCO and their audiences on a tour through the indelible songs he's written throughout his forty-year-plus career. Some of his best-loved tunes were given masterful rearrangements by JLCO bassist Carlos Henriquez, who music-directed those performances and produced the resulting album: Una Noche con Rubén Blades, now available for pre-order.
Read on for more background on Blades's greatest hits and why this record captures one of the maestro's most unforgettable live performances.
Ban Ban Quere
While not technically a Blades composition, the singer has long been associated with this Calixto Varela Gomez song. He first performed "Ban Ban Quere" on Barretto, the 1975 album by the legendary conga drummer Ray Barretto. The two were labelmates at Fania Records, where Blades got his start in the mailroom before he started penning songs. On Una Noche con Rubén Blades, the song features a spirited, soaring Wynton Marsalis solo; watch the music video now:
"El Cantante" may be most associated with salsa legend Hector Lavoe, but it was originally written by Blades, who became the de facto staff songwriter for Fania, writing hits for the label's all-star assemblage of salsa musicians. Blades has said he had hopes of keeping the song for himself; when he performed with the JLCO, he was able to do exactly that.
Perhaps Blades's best-known, most beloved song, "Pedro Navaja" inverts "Mack the Knife" in telling the tale of a petty criminal's demise. The song, which appeared on his mega-selling collaboration with Willie Colón entitled Siembra, is classic Blades: it spins a gripping story about ordinary people and the difficult decisions they find themselves forced into making by their circumstances. In the New York Times review of the JLCO's performance with Blades, Nate Chinen wrote: “If there was a peak moment of audience joy, it came during 'Pedro Navaja'... The crowd sang it all with him, which helped, but Mr. Blades’s voice fully inhabited the song: His words and phrasing expanded to the end of every long breath.”
One of Henriquez's biggest achievements from the Blades shows was crafting an infectious medley using three gems from the songwriter's catalog. As critic Ed Morales wrote, “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.”
"Patria" is the composition in which Blades grappled with his feelings for his native country, Panama, which has adopted the song so fervently that some consider it to be a kind-of second national anthem. It was also greeted with reverence by those in attendance at the JLCO concerts. In the Times, Chinen wrote that “for the encore, Mr. Blades’s song 'Patria,' a severely reduced version of the band came out to back Mr. Blades: just the percussionists, with Mr. Henriquez on bass and Mr. Marsalis playing soft improvised accompaniment. It was simple and radically beautiful."
Available now for pre-order, Una Noche con Rubén Blades finds the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis onstage with a legend of song and takes you on a journey from swing to salsa. Order the record today!
***Photo credit: Rubén Blades, by Frank Stewart***