It's hard to believe that nearly 40 years have passed since a fresh-out-of-college Natalie Cole first wowed audiences with the rousing "This Will Be," a genre-defining soul shaker which was almost as big on the pop charts as it was on the R&B side. At a time when Aretha Franklin was the primary female soul belter to have accomplished the feat of consistently moving both audiences on a big scale, Cole's 1975 debut evoked the essence of church, street, and sophistication by way of a powerful, yet lighthearted, vocal approach exuding universal appeal.
While there will never be any mistaking Cole's place in history as a soulful diva to be reckoned with, the past two decades have found her willingly exploring pastures outside of that terrain—namely jazz, standards and pop. Natalie Cole En Español, her first recording of the 2010s, is a clear indication that she intends to continue venturing into a variety of musical genres. By choosing to work with multi-faceted producer Rudy Perez and esteemed arranger Gary Lindsay, she's positioned herself to do so in a sophisticated fashion that lives up to the quality-control standards set by earlier 21st century efforts such as 2002's Ask a Woman Who Knows and 2006's Leavin'.
Natalie Cole En Español is not a survey of all-things Latin-music, but rather, a polished set largely comprised of baladas romanticas with sweeping orchestration and spicy, yet decidedly controlled, vocal performances. Given the massive success of Cole's previous standards sets (Unforgettable, Stardust), the frequency of lush strings and softly swaying percussion found here will be a delight for fans most familiar with her readings of American songbook staples. While the underlying rhythmic foundations of the material may not be enough to lure audiences searching for the gutsiness of "Inseparable" or "Annie Mae," the smooth flow will likely strike a chord with those who journeyed with the vocalist through stylistic shifts employed by hits à la "Take a Look" and "Someone That I Used to Love."
Cole's tender delivery of the Spanish language resonates brightly on mellow moments such as the introductory passage of "Frenesi"—and its subsequent tempo change; the universally loved "Bésame Mucho," performed as a duet with Andrea Bocelli; and the seductive "Yo Lo Amo (And I Love Him)," featuring the trumpet finesse of Chris Botti. There are instances where the leisurely atmosphere seems to be calling for a bit more spark, such as "Amapola," first performed in the 1925 film The Lecuona Cuban Boys by operatic tenor Miguel Fleta. Cole's treatment of this story of love and admiration is appropriately reflective, but it would benefit from some dynamic variation at times.
Although most of the arrangements maintain an understated stance, several En Español selections add uptempo flair to the mix. The aforementioned "Frenesi" (made famous in the 1950s as an instrumental by Artie Shaw and His Orchestra) builds from an idyllic beginning to a jazzy midtempo strut. Meanwhile, Tito Puente's timeless composition, "Oye Como Va" (most often associated with Santana's 1970 rendition), is the most outwardly energetic number. Perez and Lindsay combine elements of both versions to back up Cole, who sounds naturally engaged throughout the verses and chorus.
The unmistakable highlight for a large faction of listeners will be "Acércate Más," a duet featuring a posthumous appearance by Natalie's father, Nat "King" Cole. Nat recorded the Osvaldo Farres composition in 1958 for his own Cole Español collection, one of three Spanish-language LP's he made for Capitol Records following a trip to Cuba. Unfortunately, the instrumental scope of this new recording lacks the down-to-earth punch of the original, but Cole effortlessly and beautifully blends with her father as she sings each inviting note. Certain melody lines bear a comfortable similarity to "Unforgettable," the first song that paired the father-and-daughter team in 1991.
Natalie Cole En Español is a pleasing listen throughout. Immaculate and balanced arrangements, well-studied and stylish vocals, and cream-of-the-crop repertoire ensure a consistently smooth listen that sets a relaxed and dreamy mood. Along the way, there are a few spots where a tad more rhythmic creativity and free-spirited singing would undoubtedly enhance the end result. But for an artist such as Cole, who attracts a remarkably wide range of fans across many genres and demographics, the album does a commendable job of satisfying most key elements that will please the majority of her fans. Recommended.
by Justin Kantor
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