By Fernando Gonzalez
L-O-V-E (Calle 54)
Well before the concept of “crossover” became a commonplace in music marketing, Nat “King” Cole and his Honduras-born, Spanish-speaking manager, Carlos Gastel made a bold move to expand Cole’s fan base by recording an album of songs from the Latin repertoire — in Spanish. Some of the choices they made were, well, curious, and Cole didn’t speak Spanish and sang the lyrics phonetically (pianist, arranger and bandleader Bebo Valdés was a vocal coach). But the tracks were recorded in Havana by Cuban musicians and the music sounded true. Cole Español, released in 1958, was a hit. So much so that it inspired Cole, and Capitol, to create a trilogy of Latin albums, following Español with A Mis Amigos (1959), recorded in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, while Cole was touring the country, and including three songs in Portuguese, and More Cole Español (1962) recorded in Mexico City.
Many of us, growing up in Latin America, first heard of Nat “King” Cole on these albums. And be it because of Cole’s voice and charm, or the fact that an American star of his caliber would perform these songs in our language (even though some of us made fun of his pronunciation at the time and no, we didn’t know what an extraordinary jazz piano player he was, either …), these records were ubiquitous and enormously popular and made Nat “King” Cole an improbable household name.
Cuban singer Isaac Delgado’s L-O-V-E is a beautifully executed tribute to Cole en Español.
Eight of the 12 songs in L-O-V-E come from the Cole trilogy, while the rest are Cole signature songs, sung in Spanish. (In fact, the title track was one of his last hits.) On two songs, (“Quizás, Quizás, Quizás,” and “Green Eyes/Aquellos Ojos Verdes”) Delgado shares the leading role with Cole’s brother, singer and pianist Freddy Cole, an appearance made more poignant when considering Freddy Cole´s great efforts, for many years, to escape Nat´s shadow.
Trading ballads with Nat “King” Cole is a losing proposition for most singers, but Delgado, who was not a balladeer but a salsa star in Cuba before moving to the United States in 2006, holds his own here by under-singing. Consider his understated version of “A Su Mirar Me Acostumbré” ( a translation of “I’ve Grown Accustomed to her Face”) or “Tiernamente,” (“Tenderly”) especially back to back with the salsa treatment of “Ay Cosita Linda.”
When he can sing out and bring to bear his sense of swing (on “Perfidia,” “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás,” or “Piel Canela,” which here gets a cha cha cha treatment) Delgado does so always under control, in the Cole spirit as it were. Knowing Delgado’s previous work and listening to him here feels like watching a great actor losing himself in a role.
Something similar happens with pianist and arranger John di Martino, and the soloists: trumpeter Brian Lynch, reedman Ken Peplowski and trombonist Conrad Herwig all seem to know exactly how far to go. They are playing on a Nat “King” Cole album, where the song and the voice and the telling should be front and center and there is no place for vanities.
And perhaps this album might make more people aware of Freddy Cole, an exceptional story teller with a voice that probably can make poetry out of the reading of a software manual. He draws you in and you end up listening to his “Green Eyes” mesmerized, waiting for the next line.
Tribute records can be dreadful, lazy affairs, little more than marketing ploys to cash in on a dead artist’s name. L-O-V-E feels like a thoughtful, soulful response to a dialogue Nat “King” Cole started, en Español, more than 50 years ago. It took a while — but it is a worthy response.
To read more reviews and posts by Fernando Gonzalez click HERE.