Benny More box set a must-have

New on CD

Music: in concert, CDs

January 01, 2004|By Ben Ratliff | Ben Ratliff,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

American popular music in the 1950s had Frank Sinatra's duality -- a late-night morbid depression record followed by a bright swinging one. At around the same time, Benny More, El Barbaro del Ritmo, the most popular singer in Cuba, was in the practice of releasing two-sided 78-rpm singles with a dance number on one side (a son montuno or a guaracha) and a bolero on the other.

After he left Perez Prado's orchestra in 1952 to return to Havana, his home, and until he died of cirrhosis in 1963, More made his own records for RCA Victor and established himself as the greatest male singer in Cuba.

Part of More's champion status was that he excelled at both romantic and rhythmic songs, could improvise handily in the sonero tradition, and performed with legendary tenacity. But 50 years later, presented with the remarkable box set Benny More y Su Banda Gigante: Grabaciones Completas, 1953-1960, we can find some of the other reasons for his appeal.

For a branch of popular music that has such broad and deep importance -- not just in the world of Latin music, but the world in general -- Cuban music is still emerging as an archived and marketed entity. Not having More's complete works available on one well-turned-out box set until now is a bit like not having a satisfactory CD retrospective for Sinatra or Billie Holiday.

But here it is, from the Spanish label Tumbao, and it is pretty much what one could hope for, with only a few minor lapses in sound. (The producers, Jordi Pujol and Tommy Meini, searched for years to find some of these tracks, and though most are of high audio quality, a few fall short.)

The remastering is clear, with strong bass and drums and vocals; the slight studio reverb shrouding the latter half of the recordings makes the music shake sexily. The four-disc set collects More's entire output as a bandleader.

More was one of the most expressive singers in popular music. As with the old James Brown records, More's voice nearly burns a hole through the speakers. It is strong in a remarkably wide pitch range, continually changing its texture from a hard, percussive chop to a soft coo, adding bird noises and shouts and improvisations along the way. Rhythmically, he was in the top echelon of popular singers, the one that Brown belongs in beside Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole and Sinatra: His lines are remarkable for how casually he peels off a phrasing that turns your head without your even having taken in the words he has sung.

The material in this set has remarkable consistency: El Banda Gigante was a 20-piece orchestra, and its arrangements were sparkling, with creamy saxophone sections grounded by baritone lines and fierce, punctuating tattoos from the brass; it had much of the harmonic complexity of the best American jazz orchestras at the time.

Some canonical music is here, songs that were popular around the entire Spanish-speaking world. More's four tag-team recordings with the Mexican bolero singer Pedro Vargas from 1954 are here: "Perdon" and "Obsesion," written by Pedro Flores; Agustin Lara's "Solamente Una Vez"; and Arsenio Rodriguez's "Vida Es un Sueno." So is "De la Rumba al Chachacha," a fabulous joke song that switches back and forth from inflammatory, exciting, ritual drum music to the slower, lusher Cadillac ride of the cha-cha, and the incomparable son montunos "Que Bueno Baila Usted" and "Marianao."

As with Tumbao's last major reissue -- a set of the complete recordings by the Cuban conguero Chano Pozo -- this set comes with a lengthy biographical essay in Spanish and English. And there are lots of pictures, from publicity photos to snapshots taken at hotels and backstage, that suggest More's magnetism.

This set is authoritative, reasonably priced for an import ($44.98) and contains some of the strongest, most vivid music ever made.

Benny More

Benny More y su Banda Gigante: Grabaciones Completas, 1953-1960 (Tumbao) *** 1/2

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