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De La Buena's More Danceable Brand of Latin Jazz

Mar. 9, 2011
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Spanish for "the turtle," the title of De La Buena's new album, La Tortuga, gives a sense of the pace at which it was created. Arriving six years after De La Buena's 2005 debut album, En Vivo Y Directo, it's practically the work of a different band. Back in 2005, De La Buena was a group of Latin jazz traditionalists playing long, improvisational sets in jazz clubs. They've long since tightened that sound to make it punchier and more danceable.

"I think one of the turning points for us was when we played a Made in Milwaukee event at the old Onopa Brewery in 2005," recalls the band's keyboardist and musical director, David Wake. "We were used to having nights where we played two or three sets, stretching every song out, but this set was just 45 minutes, so we really tightened up the arrangements. There was still that inevitable improvisational element because we all come from some sort of jazz background, but the crowd was dancing and we got so much good feedback from people at that show. It really fueled our conversations about further bridging the gap between being a jazz band and being a dance band.

"Now our shows are no longer jazz gigs that follow the formula of a head, then a guy soloing, then a head out," Wake continues. "We started adding a lot more singing and a lot more specific arrangements. We want to keep people moving."

Responding to audiences' appetites for danceable music has made De La Buena one of the city's biggest draws and a staple of summer festivals and outdoor concert series, and those live commitments often took precedence over the studio.

Progress on La Tortuga was further slowed by the band members' outside obligations, including the band Kings Go Forth. Four of De La Buena's 10 members also play in that in-demand Milwaukee retro-soul ensemble, which has toured heavily in support of its debut album, The Outsiders Are Back.

Wake says his experience recording with Kings Go Forth shaped De La Buena's album.

"I think it hit home the importance of mixing," he says. "Kings Go Forth really has this old-school sound to it—it's not necessarily lo-fi, but their record could sit next to an old recording and fit right in. I wanted to bring a little bit of that to De La Buena, since I don't quite fancy the recording style of more modern Latin and salsa music. It's too clean and too trebly for my taste. Kings Go Forth is really rough around the edges in the recording quality. Obviously, De La Buena is a lot cleaner than that; but we wanted to find a happy medium."

The result is an album that plays on the live-in-studio aesthetic of the old-school salsa and Latin jazz records of the '70s. A former member of Lee "Scratch" Perry's backing band, Wake drew from his reggae background to give La Tortuga extra depth, listening to reverb-heavy King Tubby records for inspiration while mixing the album. Aside from the reggae accent, though, Wake says he tried not to muddle the band's Afro-Cuban and Caribbean influences too much.

"Some acts try to meld a ton of styles together, and it doesn't always produce the prettiest sound," he says. "When you do that, it's too easy to get pigeonholed as a jammy act, or to get tagged as 'world music,' a term that turns a lot of people off. We were really conscious that we didn't want our record to get too diluted stylistically. We're not one of those acts that writes funk-jazz-trip-hop-Latin-house odes. That's too diluted."

De La Buena plays an album release show Saturday, March 12, at Club Garibaldi with R.A.S. Movement and Paul Cebar.


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