I’m a sucker for Christmas tunes, especially when they’re performed as well as they are on Navidad Cubana. These all-instrumental versions of twelve traditional carols draw on a variety of styles – including Latin jazz, chachacha, rumba, and comparsa – to create toe-tapping, butt-shaking arrangements that will put a little extra sass and swing into your holiday gatherings. All were recorded live in the studio by some of the finest Cuban musicians in America, including Danilo Lozano, Harry Kim, and Luis Conte.
On most of the tracks, flute, trumpet, or violin plays the melody, with piano, bass, drums (bongo or conga), and a whole lot of percussion doing the backing. I tended to prefer the tracks that were horn-dominated, such as the incredibly lively version of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” which has trombone (!) in the lead, backed with a nice horn section and some seriously funky piano and percussion. Cuba L.A.’s “Good King Wenceslas” feels more like a smoking jazz jam session than a Christmas carol, with some incredible piano and trumpet work. On “Silent Night,” upright bass starts off with the melody, which then switches to violin, backed with gentle piano and some fascinating drum rhythms. But for sheer energy and inventive arrangement, “The Little Drummer Boy” takes the cake. Part of the fun is that played, plucked, and saw-scratched violin takes center stage instead of the drums or percussion you might expect, but the rhythm instruments play so fast and furious in back that they more than hold their own against the strings. Feliz Navidad!
Narada, 4650 N. Port Washington Rd., Milwaukee, WI 53212-1063; http://www.narada.com