Bolero Laid Bare
The boleros that were popular in Cuba during the 1940s and '50s walk a fine line between romance and schmaltz. Depending on who's singing, these songs of unfulfilled passion can seem totally natural—or seriously overwrought. Bassist Charlie Haden had a typical jazzman's instinct about ways to shed new light on these tunes: Ditch the vocals. Or, more specifically, allow instrumentalists to "sing" these yearning themes. His Nocturne explores the hidden meanings and undercurrents of the form.
It's bolero laid bare, and reconstituted as an existential quest for understanding. A veteran of the innovative bands led by Ornette Coleman, Haden's forte is "opening up" rigid verse-chorus structures. Here, he, Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, and percussion wizard Ignacio Berroa do exactly that, adding interesting pauses and momentary detours that give the music a languid, floating aura. The musicians use the themes to deliberate about love and its cruelties anew, in a way that is open to the whims of the moment. Rubalcaba is an unlikely one to lead this charge: Until Nocturne, he was known mostly for his blistering 200-mph displays of technique. This project requires something much more tender from him. He approaches these stoic, sturdy melodies as though playing them for his children at bedtime.
Nocturne begins with "En la orilla del mundo," a haunting theme that connects the smoldering pulse of tango to the harmonic adventurousness of Claude Debussy. That casts the spell, and incredibly, the ten subsequent tracks sustain it. One of the many triumphs of this record is its enveloping aura of respectful quiet: Whether playing old tunes or like-minded originals, Haden and his accomplices (including guest guitarist Pat Metheny and saxophonists Joe Lovano and David Sanchez) fixate on the spirit of the bolero, and discover that even without the words, it has much to teach about life.
Released: 2001, Verve
Key Tracks: "Tres palabras," "Yo sin ti," "En la orilla del mundo," "El ciego."
Catalog Choice: Folk Songs; The Ballad of the Fallen
Next Stop: Gonzalo Rubalcaba: Solo
After That: Frank Emilio Flynn: Musica original de Cuba
Book Page: 334