Fania kicks off 2010 with what is sure to end up being one of the year's most important archival releases of Latin music. Nuyorican bandleader Joe Cuba, who died last year, was very involved in compiling this non-chronological survey of some of his best (as well as some of his hardest-to-find) recordings. Like any such journey by a seminal figure with a long career (e.g., Dylan's Biograph box set), the end result is both idiosyncratic and revealing.
We get the legendary stuff like "Bang Bang" (the track that kicked off the boogaloo craze) and "El Pito" (a/k/a "I'll Never Go Back to Georgia"), an infectious workout that could make the dead dance and that — legend has it — intimidated James Brown himself. But we also get a lot of doo-wop-inflected material that harks back to the New York street-corner roots of the versatile Spanish Harlem percussionist, plus a few wonderfully sentimental boleros ("Los Dos," "Aunque Tu"), the ancestral Caribbean beat of "Boom Boom Lucumi," and a true oddity, a spacy, echoey ballad called "Como Rien" that would have delighted Sun Ra and Arthur Russell.
The two-disc set even finds room for the unbelievable "Psychedelic Baby (You're Psychin' Up My Mind)," Joe's futile 1967 attempt to update his sounds for the Flower Power generation. Many tracks feature the band's smooth vocalists — notably Cheo Feliciano and Jimmy Sabater — but the main ingredients are always Cuba's assured rhythmic mastery and his influential vision. The bridge between the Latin jazz of the 1950s and the salsa of the 1970s passes through Joe Cuba — this is his autobiography in sound.