Back to the earth

By JON GARELICK  |  January 30, 2007

Inspired by the Sosas and the Portuandos and the Cruzes, she says, “I didn’t want to be a salsa singer — I wanted to be a singer. And I never wanted to play exactly in the tradition of things. I like to know them, I like to have them at hand. But I never wanted to be exactly that or exactly the other.” With her older brother Miguel’s encouragement (and a Miles Davis record he brought home), she pursued jazz, but instrumental jazz. “Then I heard Sarah [Vaughan] and I said, ‘Oh dear, I have to do something about this.’ ”

“This” was jazz harmony and theory, which led her to Boston. She studied at Berklee (where she has taught since 1984) and found that standards were useful for improvisation but that something was still missing. “I couldn’t always connect with the lyrics, which were very American” — and, to this child of the nueva canción, a bit corny.

It took her a while to figure out how to use Spanish — and the music she had grown up with — as a vehicle for jazz. She had known Dan since meeting him at a jam session in the early ’80s. Before too long they were working together. and as Dan tells it, “the creative lyrical output became the Spanish language.”

Mili’s elegant, succinct translations/introductions are a hallmark of her live performances, something that’s captured on De Tierra. The new album came from a dark place for the couple. Feeling disillusioned by the results of the 2004 election, they found solace in the new home they were building in New Hampshire. Greenspan built a shed to hold a brick oven for breaking bread. They adapted the house to alternative energy. They grew their own fruit and vegetables. They considered withdrawing completely. But when they thought about where their lives — and the music — were going, they realized the answer was right there at their fingertips.

“We developed this relationship with the land,” Dan says, “and we realized what that can actually do to a human soul — get your fingers in the dirt, dig, grow something, eat it, fuck up, get bit by flies, whatever, but it’s a real relationship, whereas so much of what we have to deal with now isn’t — it’s iPods and digital this and that and pointing and clicking.” Mili: “It teaches you so much: to be quiet and do those things. It’s hard with no help!” The couple also found themselves digging through their old collection of cassettes — of the music they had listened to or had been made with friends over the years. “So the choice of the record,” says Greenspan, “was meaning and content. Which was so important now that it seemed so dark.” Mili paraphrases the title track: “Your skin will smell like wet soil, but it will be simple, and there will be hope.”

So they gathered old friends: pianist Tim Ray, guitarist Claudio Ragazzi, drummer Bertram Lehman, percussionist Ernesto Diaz, and vocalists Alex Alvear and Karina Colis of Mango Blue. The album is marked by several touching ballads — “Hermano” (dedicated to her late brother Miguel), “Bonitas Canciones” (for her father). On the latter, her voice, which has developed the deep power she admired in Sosa and Portuando and Cruz, hits some of its duskiest, most horn-like tones. You get Mili’s full range in “La Semana,” which begins with just her and Ragazzi (on acoustic guitar) in ballad tempo before shifting into upbeat Cuban son — mourning life’s fragility in the opening verse, flying with heedless rhythmic dexterity over the carpe diem dance section.

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