Willy Chirino
(Sony Tropical)

Family-style salsa pop with a light dance beat best suited for conservative hips has propeled Miami's Willy Chirino to the top of the Latin tropical-music ranks. And here we go again: His new release, Asere, is as predictable as the menu of a Cuban restaurant on Calle Ocho. Asere, a Cuban colloquial term that means something like "dude," includes a couple of cloyingly sweet ballads -- "Como un Explorador" ("Like an Explorer") and "La Ultima Canci centsn" ("The Last Song") -- although catchy salsa and merengue tunes predominate. The songs' subjects are standards of Cuban popular music: sexual innuendo on "Tiqui Tiqui"; unrequited love on "Dejate Querer" ("Let Yourself Love"); and celebrations of Cuba's physical beauty on "Luna de Oriente" ("Oriente Moon").

This is a well-produced easy-listening album with crossover appeal for Anglo listeners. Chirino has a pleasant voice that recalls Cuban crooners of yesteryear, and his band is exceptional; unfortunately they're relegated to the background most of the time. (A highlight, however, is percussionist Sammy "Timbalon" Pagan's Afro-Cuban drum work on "Luna de Oriente.") Chirino is a crowd pleaser, not a risk taker, and his music serves as an inducement for polite party dancing rather than get-down bumping and grinding. His lack of soul is most obvious on "Caballero y Dama" ("Gentleman and Lady"), a duet with Celia Cruz; but even in her declining years, Cruz adds an explosion of sabor to this salsa that will make you forget all about Chirino.

No Chirino album would be complete without some social commentary on the current situation in Cuba. "Jinetera," written by the singer, describes the common plight of a young Cuban girl from a nice family who prostitutes herself to tourists in Havana. The song offers a more complex arrangement than other tracks here, accentuating the band's fine musicianship, while Chirino's storytelling style recalls Ruben Blades's brand of urbane salsa. It's a good A even powerful A song, but the effect is somewhat diminished by Chirino's curious choice of cover art for the CD: a painting by the Miami-based artist team the Scull Sisters that depicts Chirino standing on a Havana street corner salaciously exclaiming and gesturing over the sight of the ample rump of a whorish mulatto woman walking a few steps in front of him.

-- Judy Cantor

Jimmy Smith

After an absence of 23 years, the father of the funky Hammond B-3 organ returns to the Verve label for Damn!, an appropriately titled sweat-raising affair. Expect no surprises: You'll recognize just about every title here, from James Brown's "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" to Charlie Parker's "Scrapple from the Apple," although none has previously been recorded by Smith.

Sounding much like the early-Sixties Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, the group accompanying Smith comprises a pride of young talent, including the outstanding trumpets of Nicholas Payton and Roy Hargrove; tenor men Tim Warfield, Ron Blake, and Mark Turner; altoist Abraham Burton; Mark Whitfield, displaying his best guitar work yet; and insert-your-own-superlative bassist Christian McBride. As with the Messengers, though, it's the drums that drive the team, and veterans Bernard Purdie and the late Arthur Taylor (featured here in his last recording session) carry on Blakey's tradition of putting the whelps through their paces.

Smith's B-3 resonates throughout, adding plenty of texture, but on many of the tunes it blends into the rhythm section, allowing the horns to take center stage in the finest roadhouse head-cutting fashion. Though the arrangements are taut, there is still enough room for improvisation. A nice take on Herbie Hancock's done-to-death "Watermelon Man" neatly sidesteps cliche, just teasing the all-too-familiar riff while mining its rich groove. And the album closes out, not coincidentally, with the gorgeous "A La Mode," written by one-time Jazz Messenger trombonist Curtis Fuller.

Damn! hardly rivals Smith's best work in the Fifties for the Blue Note label -- where the sound was loose and had a late-night, looking-for-trouble kind of feel and a funk so thick it ate like a meal -- but it is still a delicious treat worth savoring.

-- Bob Weinberg

Drinking Watermelon Sugar

Snapdragon singer-songwriter Tara VanDevender has apparently been thinking a lot about the Seventies -- at least to judge from the nostalgic thread running through Drinking Watermelon Sugar, her South Florida alternative folk-rock band's debut disc. Trouble is, so have a lot of other groups, and too many of Snapdragon's songs ring with disturbing familiarity. The gently orchestrated "Orangecrush" is reminiscent of both the Gin Blossoms' "Till I Hear It from You" and frente!'s version of New Order's "Bizarre Love Triangle." (Comparisons are also inevitable between VanDevender's squeaky vocals and those of little-girl singers such as Juliana Hatfield and frente!'s Angie Hart.) And "Farrah Fawcett," hailed here as a childhood idol in an ironic jangle-pop song about empty-headed wishes, bears more than a passing resemblance to Jill Sobule's recent single "Supermodel."

Some glimmers of inspiration appear on "Glamour" -- one of the few songs here to sport any gusto, with a flamenco-style chorus and funky disco break -- and "Blue," which rocks harder than anything else on the disc with its dark bass line and some crunchy guitar riffs. Overall, however, Drinking Watermelon Sugar is as sickeningly sweet as its title implies.

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