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The Great American Songbook Goes Latino For The First Time Ever

Yolanda DukeFrom RnM

MUMBAI: As we move further into the twenty-first century, Latin Jazz has become a complicated style with a long history and divergent paths into the future. The mere act of combining jazz performance with cultural traditions from the Caribbean and South America is a tall order. Drawing upon over a hundred years of jazz evolution, modern performance practices in Latin dance music, and the impact of North American popular music just makes things more confusing. Many musicians will simply dive into the music, experimenting with any number of influences from the music’s history without truly understanding them. While these artists might create something that resembles Latin Jazz, they’re missing an important piece of the puzzle – a perspective on the music’s continuing evolution.

Modern musicians that are going to make a serious statement need a broad perspective on Latin Jazz that combines the lessons of the past, the realities of the present, and a forward looking vision into the future.

Vocalist Yolanda Duke certainly has an interesting perspective upon the Latin Jazz world, as someone who’s spent years performing with historically important musicians and forging her own path. In Yolanda’s younger days, she cut her teeth in the clubs and restaurants of her home town New York, which was alive with the sounds of both Latin music and jazz. From there, Duke paid her dues and refined her craft, spending years headlining a Vegas style show in one of the Caribbean’s most lively venues, La Fuente Nightclub.

She soon began her career as a recording artist, producing popular tropical albums like “Soy Una Fiera and Nostalgias de La Lupe”. The second album, a tribute to a legend of Latin music, caught the attention of Latin Jazz icon Tito Puente. The bandleader heard the potential of Duke’s vocals and invited her to perform as a guest with his ensemble; this initial invitation eventually lead to a permanent spot as the band’s singer over the next six years. Duke spent that time performing with some of the world’s top jazz musicians and arrived on the other side with a defined perspective on the past, present, and future of Latin Jazz, ready to make the music her own, and move it into the future.

“Te Llevo Bajo La Piel” is a living example of Duke’s perspective, and a close examination of her repertoire reveals the value that Duke places upon tradition and personalization. There are songs from Gershwin, Porter, Arlen, and more, as Duke integrates the cornerstone songs of jazz, the Great American Songbook. While jazz musicians and fans alike would recognize these songs in an instant, they may not be immediately apparent through a quick glance at the titles; remember, this is about Duke’s perspective. Through her eyes, “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” becomes “Nadie Me Lo Podra Quitar” and “What Is This Thing Called Love” becomes “Eso Que Llaman Amor.” Singing these songs in Spanish connects Duke to the history and culture of Latin Jazz in a powerful way that speaks volumes about her place in the music. This whole process was done in a show of respect for the original lyricists; in most cases, instead of writing divergent Spanish text, she took the time to directly translate the original lyrics. Of course, Duke realizes that there’s more to the Great American Songbook than the United States and she has wisely included songs from Puerto Rican musicians Rafael Hernandez and Myrta Silva. This album resonates with Duke’s big picture of the Great American Songbook and she’s taken great care to shape it in her own way.

Tackling the Great American Songbook from a unique perspective is easier said than done, but fortunately, Duke is a vocalist with massive chops that can turn out a stylistically authentic performance full of personality. Many of the tracks place Duke among Cuban rhythms, an area where she owns the music with a commanding presence. Duke dances around the clave with a drive that’s graceful, intense, and precise.

Whether she’s singing over a laid back cha cha cha like “Luna Azul” or charging through an up tempo salsa groove like “Dios, Como Te Amo!,” Duke navigates the syncopated backdrop with style. When the rhythm section changes gears, Duke is equally comfortable swinging her vocals. She strings together classic melodies with a rhythmic momentum and distinct personality that would make Ella Fitzgerald proud. She does more than that though – she swings in Spanish, which is not an easy task. The rhythmic integrity of these melodies was originally based around the English lyric, but Duke has found the swing in her Spanish translations. It would be a crime to call Duke a slave to style – she approaches each song with an emotional base that overflows with her personal touch. In so many ways, Duke is the total package, able to express herself in a way that shows respect to both these classic songs and her own sense of artistic integrity.

A musician with the skill and finesse of Duke needs a supporting cast of equal power, and she’s certainly got it here.

Blazing a ferocious groove and powerful sound behind Duke is none other than The Tito Puente Orchestra, the same group of musicians that played alongside Tito Puente for more than thirty years. The powerhouse rhythm section includes percussionists Jose Madera, John “Dandy” Rodriguez, and George Delgado, as well as pianist Sonny Bravo, who collectively tear through a diverse selection of grooves with the same precision and passion that they’ve used for decades. Whether they’re scorching through a double time rumba on “Te Llevo Bajo La Piel” or laying down a steady Bolero on “Muchos Besos,” these guys handle each setting with class and authenticity.

Duke takes the opportunity to feature some of the the band’s well-known soloists and they light the songs on fire – trumpet player John Walsh flies through “Eso Que Llaman Amor” in a hard bop frenzy while tenor saxophonist Mitch Frohman glides through his improvisation on “Luna Azul” with a smoky tone and relaxed phrasing that just oozes big band cool. All of these outstanding performances are based upon arrangements from some of most experienced and knowledgeable writers in Latin Jazz – Jose Madera, Ray Santos, Oscar Hernandez, Marty Sheller, and more. These are the same folks that have provided arrangements for Puente, Machito and his Afro-Cubans, Mongo Santamaria, Ray Barretto, and several other Latin Jazz legends.

In every way, Duke has surrounded herself with musicians that hold deep roots in the history of the music, who understand how to pay their respect to the past.

Duke’s collaboration with her Puente band mates certainly forges a strong connection with the music’s history, but she also looks into the future by connecting with another Latin Jazz giant, Arturo Sandoval. The two musicians tackle a Cuban standard, the timeless song “Contigo En La Distancia,” written by César Portillo de la Luz and loved around the world for its lush harmony, gorgeous melody, and potent lyrics. From the introductory trumpet flurry to a closing statement that pushes notes into the stratosphere, Sandoval approaches the song with a warm embrace, reflective of his close connection to the music. In fact, Sandoval puts a major mark on the song by creating the arrangement and playing all of the different instruments on the track. Sandovars complete musicianship brings out the best in Duke, helping her deliver an impassioned performance, full of powerful dynamic range, subtle nuance, and personal interpretation. There’s some reciprocal inspiration here as Sandoval captures the rich tone and wide vibrato of Duke’s vocals in his lyrical trumpet solo that connects the different pieces of the melody in an elegant fashion. Between Sandoval and Duke, you’ve got two musicians who understand the history of Latin Jazz and hopefully their continued collaboration will help open new ground to move it into the future.

Duke shares her clear perspective on Latin Jazz throughout Te Llevo Bajo La Piel, delivering a memorable performance that resonates with a defined vision of the past, present, and future. Duke spent years forging a strong connection to the music’s history, and those lessons shine in every  performance. She has taken the realities of her present and transformed historically important songs into personal statements with top notch arrangements and outstanding performances. This sense of clarity and excellence creates a straight road into the future, guaranteeing that we’ll be hearing Duke’s smart music in the years ahead. There’s no puzzle pieces missing in Duke’s artistic vision; she’s got the full picture n place and she’s putting it on display for the world to hear. Duke presents Latin Jazz with a distinct sense of clarity on Te Uevo Bajo La Piel, letting us see the music through her perspective and leaving us with a wealth of inspiration.

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