Venezuelan jazz troubadour Maria Rivas's tribute to coffee, Café Negrito, could easily be a featured item at Starbucks -- and not simply because java serves as the unifying lyrical theme for this collection of contemporary, classic, and traditional Latin songs. Even more to the point, this highly crafted world-beat fusion serves up Afro-Latin and indigenous Latin-American folk music by catering to European and Euro-American tastes as carefully as the coffee franchise domesticates its exotic beans. Depending on how smooth you like your multicultures brewed, this high-end production from Ashé Records will appeal to you.
Born in Caracas, Rivas came of professional age singing in the capital city's sophisticated jazz joints, such as Juan Sebastian Bar. Taking up the legacy of great U.S. jazz tunes about joe, from the jumpin' "Java Jive" to the love-weary "Black Coffee," Café Negrito is at its best when it's at its jazziest. The interpretation of Dizzy Gillespie's "Night in Tunisia," with impressive scatting and Spanish lyrics written by Rivas, proves that if Venezuelan musicians got into the jazz game late, they came in swinging. Other highlights include Francisco Morales's piano solo on the title track and Rivas's lounge styling on "Neblina de Tu Alma" ("Phantom of Your Soul"), both composed by the singer. "Motorizado II" ("Motorized"), also written by Rivas, is a pleasant jazzed-up salsa recounting the proclivity for caffeine among Caracas's motorcyclists, while her cover of the well-known "Moliendo Café" offers folkloric touches to a sophisticated arrangement in just the right proportion.
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Less successful are the pop flourishes added to the traditional tunes -- the Venezuelan calypso "Cecilia" and the pop patanemo "Mi Mama No Quiere" ("My Mother Does Not Like") -- and to the neotraditional "El Manduco" (a wooden stick used by to wash clothes) written by Rivas's arranger Gilberto Simoza. The very rightness of the jazz and folkloric elements here make the occasional nod to synthesized dance music sound false. Eschewing the dance impulse in favor of a new-age feel, "Paraiso Regional" ("Regional Paradise"), "Dandole al Pilon" ("Pounding the Mortar"), and "Latinoamérica Espera" communicate Rivas's commitment to the environment and a pan-Latin Americanism premised on a vision of ancestral and ecological harmony. Just how appetizing you find the fusion is as much a matter of taste as your preference for caffe latte, cappuccino, or café mocha -- or in the Venezuelan terms Rivas's shares in her liner notes: for guayoyo (clear coffee), marron (with a bit of milk), or con leche.