Judging from the title and the cover shot of a blurry little Metropolitan convertible overflowing with bouquets of long-stemmed roses, Carlos Barbosa-Lima is revving up to swing out, sister. Reading through the titles, the material represents a fine selection of Latin music from 1930 through 1950. Mambo No. 5 is a reminder not to judge the book (or record) by the cover. At first glance, this offering more than hints at a peppy upbeat journey. The twenty pieces as impeccably performed on acoustic guitar are primarily introspective renditions, always breathtaking in complexity and execution though often tinged with melancholy. For Sr. Barbosa-Lima, this is a brief pit stop on a continuing journey of melodic interpretations begun more than forty years ago.
The idea behind the CD is almost a natural. Barbosa-Lima was born in Brazil and was a young precocious student of both Brazilian guitarist Isaias Savios and Andres Segovia. Since the late ’60s, Barbosa-Lima’s acclaim as an exceptional acoustic guitarist is well deserved. He can provide near symphonic complexity on a solo instrument, because when he arranges he looks on his guitar as his orchestra. He worked personally with Antonio Carlos Jobim when reannotating Jobim’s compositions for solo guitar and provided a tasteful restatement of Luiz Bonfa’s works.
On this CD, Barbosa-Lima goes it alone on 15 of the 20 numbers. The title tune, El Rey Perez Prado’s “Mambo No. 5”, is true to spirit — playful, light but a little raucous, and certainly lively. On this, he receives an assist in the rhythm section from Eddie Gomez on bass, Oscar Hernandez on piano, plus two percussionists. Backed by the same players, the way up-tempo Brazilian “Tico Tico” is like speed samba, but also conjures up images of checkered red tablecloths and a candle stuck in a Chianti bottle. “Perfidia”, with Eddie Gomez on bass, is likely to become my favorite version of one of my favorite songs and might be worth the price of the whole compilation for anyone else, especially if you have a thing for 1950s jazz trios. Unfortunately, those are pretty much it for the upbeat numbers, except for “Cachita”, which moves rhythmically from salsa to samba to montuno, and includes a kinky bongo solo. And “Arquelo Do Brasil”, once the long slow introduction to theme is out of the way and the samba begins kicking up its heels even as a solo piece.
The remaining pieces are solo endeavors, all slower in meter and high on technical demand. The graceful “Guantanamera” seems to have incorporated elements in the technique of stammering the rhythm shifts needed to play bossa nova or samba, but this is a recognizable guajira. Simply done, but simply impressive.
Barbosa-Lima’s virtuosity and masterful technique throughout the CD are inspiring. There is, though, a rather cool, classical approach to the remainder of the arrangements. Instead of feeling like a blue-sky travel poster, the overall mood is like looking at Impressionist paintings on a day that had promised sun and is now clouding over. But, a lot of cerebral types seem to feel that way.