There are few things more exciting than watching young (or not so young) musicians find their voices. The sound of discovery shines out of every track on “Opaluna” (Ridgeway Records), the eponymous new album by two 20-something musicians, the Colombian-born vocalist Susana Pineda and Bay Area guitarist Luis Salcedo.
Pineda hails from Medellin and decided to study in the U.S. with the encouragement of her mentor, Claudia Gomez, who was a major force in the Bay Area Latin music scene in the 1980s and '90s before moving back to Colombia. Pineda and Salcedo met at the California Jazz Conservatory in Berkeley, and they’ve honed a gorgeous roots-meets-21st century sound filtered through their love of jazz.
Salcedo is an accomplished guitarist who creates intricately latticed settings for Pineda’s gleaming vocals, breathing new life into the classic bolero "Dos Gardenias." They're joined on several tracks by percussion maestro John Santos and bassist Jeff Denson, who produced the album (and founded and runs Ridgeway Records). Their originals are consistently winsome and winning, but I particularly loved their arrangement of “Mahjong” (with Santos) that foregrounds the folkloric melodic core of Wayne Shorter’s cosmic harmonies.
Opaluna draws on samba and psychedelia, Afro-Caribbean rhythms and an array of folk traditions. Another highlight is “Baile de Opuestos,” a musical translation of Frank Loesser’s “Inchworm” set to a Colombian joropo rhythm. Fresh and endearingly earnest, Opaluna creates jazz with a Latin-American sensibility all their own.
Recent graduates aren’t the only players branching out into new territory. One of my favorite new albums is Oakland folk singer Aireene Espiritu’s “Back Where I Belong,” a project focusing on songs by or associated with Bay Area R&B great Sugar Pie DeSanto.
It’s one of four new roots-music-with-a-twist projects released by the pianist Jim Pugh’s Little Village Foundation. The CD that’s gotten the lion’s share of attention, not undeservedly, is Indian-born blues harmonica player Aki Kumar’s “Aki Goes to Bollywood.” But the Philippine-born Espiritu’s tribute to the great Filipina R&B singer who recorded for Chess Records in the 1960s is similarly head-turning, with arrangements filtered through her love of American roots music.
Backed by a top-shelf band led by Norwegian-born guitarist and producer Kid Andersen (who recorded the project in his Greaseland Studios in San Jose), Espiritu plays tenor ukulele and belts out songs in an array of styles. She sings spirituals, Motown, blues, R&B and even covers several songs associated with Pinoy rock icon Freddie Aguilar, infusing Philippine standards with Oakland soul. But at the heart of the album is DeSanto, who wrote some great tunes. Espiritu delivers her “Going Back Where I Belong” with total conviction, and lets her wicked side out on “Witch For a Night.” But my favorite track is her aching version of “My Illusions,” an overlooked b-side from a 1970 DeSanto single.
Finally, Bay Area multi-instrumentalist Will Magid delivers an intoxicating dose of orchestral space-age soul on his new album “Alligator Spacewalk.” Featuring an expansive ensemble with strings and brass, the album is most interesting when Magid unleashes Sharlotte Gibson, a powerhouse vocalist who sounds gloriously regal on “The Crown” and “Sweet Something.” Best known as the longtime ringleader of the World Wide Dance Party, an ongoing forum for mixing up a global array of celebratory styles, Magid embraces tradition by re-imaging sounds for tomorrow.