The New Cool: Cuban Jazz Meets American Pop

Dec 1, 2017

I'm always suspicious of collections of modern pop covers. The songs of today don't normally equal the quality of the Great American Songbook. But the collaborations on the new album AmeriCuba from the Havana Maestros bring fresh energy and explore unexpected opportunities for improvisation.

Produced by brothers Frank and Christian Berman, it's a sequel of sorts to their previous collection of modern pop songs spiced with Cuban percussion, Rhythms del Mundo: Cuba from 2008. This time around, the brothers sought to honor the wishes of the island's musical talent.

Though they were uniformly excited to tackle American pop songs, the brothers noted that the musicians “only wanted to do it if we could make it better or give it a new identity.” That they do.

AmeriCuba includes 42 musicians from Cuba, including laúd player Barbarito Torres and percussionist Amadito Valdés from the Buena Vista Social Club. The 20-time Cubadisco (the Cuban Grammys) winner Emilio Vega handles the arrangements.

Recording at Abdala Studios in Havana with a full-service bar, the musicians would hang out first and record a song when the spirit moved them. Each song was recorded live, in the moment, along with the vocal tracks of the original recording which are included on the album. It sounds like Otis Redding, Missy Elliott and Ben E. King were in the studios with them.

"These two worlds belong together," says arranger Vega. "Music gets the ball rolling towards real unity." That's a sentiment fans of Jazz Caliente with Robin Lloyd know well, and with modern jazz crossing borders around the world, it's something New Cool listeners are learning now.

Most compelling to modern jazz fans is their cover of Janelle Monáe's massive hit "Tightrope" from 2010. The original is a multi-layered, complex dance song. The Havana Maestros dial in on the dance beat with a swinging mambo rhythm, Monáe's soulful delivery is a perfect match and even the original rap sections from Big Boi are at home in the Latin context.

The call-out for "classy brass" from the original song takes on new meaning with the shimmering horn lines of Havana Maestros fading the party into a steamy, tropical sunset. You'll hear this fresh update on The New Cool this weekend, along with new albums from trumpeter Keyon Harrold, singer Emily McCormick and London's Ezra Collective, plus exclusive studio session performances from Northwest groups Polyrhythmics and D'Vonne Lewis' Limited Edition.

The New Cool is easy to share with friends from Cuba to Carnation and around the world, so pass it on!

The New Cool airs Saturdays from 3 to 5 pm, hosted by Abe Beeson and produced by KNKX Public Radio in Seattle, Wash.