As someone who has reviewed his share of Cuban music, I have to confess that I jumped to a premature conclusion when I received my review copy of the latest album from Pablo (Paul) Menéndez. I pretty much expected I’ll See You In Cuba, coming out in early January on the Zoho label, to be a collection of traditional Cuban sounds — which would have suited me just fine.
But even though the talented guitarist and his band, Mezcla (‘Mixture’ in Spanish), include a few tracks reminiscent of the usual music of Cuba, this album is one of the most diverse collections around. It maintains a Cuban feel throughout but touches a number of bases, including a fiery fusion piece, a jazz standard, a satirical tune, and even an “answer” song.
Although he is American-born, Menéndez has lived in Cuba for decades, and along the way has become one of the leading lights of the Cuban musical scene. His group includes a number of talented pros like trumpeter Máyquel González, flutist Magela Herrera, saxman Orlando Sanchez, and percussionist Octavio Rodríguez, along with various musical guests added on some of the tracks.
The diversity of the music is obvious on the first track, “Big Brecker,” a tribute to the late Michael Brecker that showcases Sanchez’s tenor sax on cutting-edge riffs. The variations continue with the fusion sounds of “Chicoy’s Blues,” which features Menendez’s blazing guitar licks, reminiscent of the best of Beck.
The (sort of) title tune is a change of pace, a prohibition-era piece, but one with a new message. Irving Berlin’s “I’ll See You In C.U.B.A.” was originally a tongue-in-cheek invitation for thirsty jazz fans of the Roaring Twenties to meet in Havana, where liquor was still legal. Here it’s a message from Menendez that gently addresses the current U.S. embargo of Cuba. In any case, it’s an outstanding piece, and one of the best here.
The group also tackles Monk’s “‘Round Midnight,” a jazz standard that shows up on a lot of traditional jazz collections, but seemed a little out of place here. However, I did very much enjoy another standard — or more accurately, the ‘answer’ song to a standard. Gershwin’s “I’ve Got Rhythm” is the target of Menendez’s response, “Quien Tiene Ritmo? (Who’s Got Rhythm).”
Overall, a very good collection of diversified jazz with a Cuban feel. Recommended.