Friday, February 21, 2014

Review - Smithsonian Folkways' Flaco & Max: Legends & Legacies‏


There have been many great conjunto musicians that have emerged since the birth of the genre. From those many, there have been a few that have gone on to represent this style of music to the world beyond the United States of America. Two of those representatives are legendary accordionist Flaco Jimenez and bajo-sexto player Max Baca. 

According Baca, this album with his mentor and father-figure came about as a way to recognize and celebrate the music they listened to during their childhoods. While they have recorded many times before, this marks the first time that the two would sing juntos (together) in a recording. I'm happy to report that this much anticipated, seventeen-track album delivers in being a fantastic, multi-generation celebration of conjunto music. 

The CD opens with the romantic canción "Margarita, Margarita", a classic composition by Carlos Guerrero. To those unfamiliar with this number, it's one of the most popular songs in Tejano and conjunto music. The lyrics — "Ay que lástima, que lástima, que lástima me da..." ("Oh what a shame, what a shame, what a shame it gives me...") and "Te voy a comprar chinelas y un vestido tan bonito para que bailes la polka al estilo tacuachitio..." ("I'm going to buy you sandals and a pretty dress so you can dance the polka, possum-style.") — are so catchy and memorable. This addictive track sets the stage for what's to follow, as Jimenez darts in and out with his signature accordion adornos (grace notes). Great interpretation by Jimenez and Baca. 

The duo give Jesús Favella's sentimental ranchera "Me voy lejos" a raw, cantina-sounding appeal that makes it sound like you just walked into a smoky, dim-lit bar in South Texas. The song recounts a tale of unrequited love, a familiar subject in this style of music.

Antonio Fuentes' "La múcura" is a popular cumbia standard that many conjunto musicians enjoy playing. Baca takes the lead and sings the majority of the song solo. The highlight of this track begins at the 2:15 mark, which is when Baca starts shredding it on the bajo-sexto. Sounds amazing and it really gives you an idea of what the bajo-sexto is capable of. 

"Mi primer amor" is a Guadalupe Ramos canción that Jimenez has performed for decades. Aesthetically, this represents the type of material that Jimenez is attracted to. It's a nostalgic, heartfelt tune about how the protagonist will never forget about his first true love. Short and sweet; straight to the heart.  

There are a few songs on here that were penned by Jimenez's father, Santiago Jimenez Sr. Two that stood out for me are the delightful pair of "Cada vez que cae la tarde" and "Morena, morenita". 

We also get several songs with comical lines and narratives. "Ay te guacho cucaracho" (a brilliant Spanglish title) deals with a man waking up confused after being out drinking the night before. "La viejita" is about a conflicted young man who is dating an older woman just for her lana (money). Another example is "Brincando cercas", which climaxes when a husband catches his wife and her sancho (lover) in the middle of a very intimate act.  

This album has three solid instrumentals — "Los amores de José", "Beer-Drinking Polka" and "Fiesta alegre". The first one is a graceful, dreamy vals (waltz) that is perfect for couples to dance to. The other two are polkas that I've never heard before, and Jimenez sprints through them. He learned the first polka from an old recording, while the latter is one of his own creations. Both are snappy and full of zest. 

This album arrives with an extensive 40-page booklet, that includes both English and Spanish translations. To those that don't understand Spanish-language songs, there is a "Track Notes" section that gives you insight into what the song is about.

The intricate touches that Jimenez and Baca weave into these songs with their instruments are what makes them come to life. They can take the simplest of songs and inject them with their unique savor (flavor). This is one of the more accessible conjunto releases I've ever listened to. It's a great introduction for anyone that is just getting interested in this type of music. It's also a treasure for longtime fans, who have probably listened to different interpretations of these songs, and who know what Jimenez and Baca have to offer. What a gem of an album.  

Smithsonian Folkways' Flaco & Max: Legends & Legacies will be released on February 25. You can pre-order it at Amazon.com today. For more information, please visit http://www.folkways.si.edu/index.aspx. 

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