Posted on August 19, 2019 at 6:01 am

It feels like a cliché to write about a performer’s “passion,” such an overused word, and yet I can’t think of any other way to discuss the experience of putting this show together with Raúl Esparza. What was evident from the outset was his incredible passion – passion for telling stories, passion for doing the work at its highest level, passion for the music of Cuba, passion for singing. It is rare for any of my guests to do more than four or five songs, but Raúl’s passion was so insistent, so defining, that he kept asking to do more, and ultimately he sang seven songs (and had prepared two more that we didn’t do)!

Raúl’s first language was Spanish, and nothing in our work together was more joyful or more meaningful than when he began singing in his native tongue, the idioms and turns of phrase he learned from his mother and father, as in Lecuona’s legendary guajira “Como Arrullo de Palmas” (performed in the style of the great Beny Moré), and Alejandro Sanz’s hit “Corazón Partío.” (I had to sing along in Spanish for that one, a task for which we discovered I have laudable enthusiasm but minimal aptitude.) We also sang the SubCulture premiere of the song I wrote for Audra McDonald for last year’s RAICES benefit album, “Singing You Home.” We welcomed two special guests to the band to help out – the dazzling percussionist and singer Lisette Santiago and the virtuoso salsa trumpeter Guido Gonzalez. In a time of brutal nativist politics, a time of virulent hostility and shocking violence toward Latino immigrants in this country, I was so proud to be able to stand on stage with Raúl and Guido and Lisette and embrace Latino culture, to proclaim loudly our commitment to sharing our lives and our art, and to allow their voices and instruments to speak. I cringe when I hear musicians say that music is not political, that naïve bromide implying that something which is non-verbal and non-visual is therefore too abstract to have an ideological intent. That’s a nonsensically simplistic viewpoint. Music is emphatically political; culture is a way that a society defines and differentiates itself, and music is central to any culture. To claim that music has no political voice is to say that music is the same from one culture to another, and of course that’s not true. The salsa and mambo and bachata and merengue, the flamenco and tango and ranchera and reggaeton, these are specifically Latino musical styles, and when I play them, when I incorporate these rhythms and timbres into my own music, it is a distinctly political act, an act of profound respect, and an intentional decision to embrace and celebrate and amplify another culture. I am deeply honored to make music with these exceptionally talented Latinx artists.

Raúl also dug into his rock-and-roll side with Marc Broussard’s scorcher “Home”; burrowed deep into Trisha Yearwood’s “Hearts in Armor”; and soared through two songs that he was born to sing, “The Old Red Hills of Home” and “Wondering.”

A week before the show, my mentor unexpectedly died at 91 years old, and while it will take the rest of my life to process what Hal Prince meant to me and how I can honor his legacy and his belief in my work, I wanted very much to pay tribute to him at this concert, and so we performed a new arrangement of the overture I created for Hal’s last Broadway musical, Prince of Broadway. I cannot describe how meaningful it was for me to play that piece while looking out at the seat in the fourth row on the right side of the aisle, the seat where Hal sat every time he came to see us at SubCulture, and where his daughter Daisy – my most valued collaborator and dearest friend – sat with her family on Friday night.

Another special addition to the band was Grammy-nominated violinist Sara Caswell, who stepped in on three days’ notice when our beloved Todd Reynolds called in sick. In addition to scorching solos on “Hallowed Ground” and “Home,” Sara offered up a joyful and virtuosic take on the old Nat “King” Cole standard “Sweet Lorraine,” earning a rapturous ovation from a crowd that knew without question what an extraordinary night they had witnessed.

Next month: the great Jenn Colella and the glorious Chilina Kennedy! September 9, 8 pm!

“Prince of Broadway” Overture from Prince of Broadway (2017)
Melinda from How We React and How We Recover (2018)
Hallowed Ground from How We React and How We Recover (2018)
RAUL: Corazón Partío (music and lyrics by Alejandro Sanz, 1997)
RAUL: The Old Red Hills of Home from Parade (1998)
RAUL: Como Arullo de Palmas (music and lyrics by Ernesto Lecuona, 1933)
RAUL: Wondering from The Bridges of Madison County (2014)
SARA: Sweet Lorraine (music by Cliff Burwell, lyrics by Mitchell Parish, 1928)
RAUL: Hearts in Armor (music and lyrics by Jud Johnstone, 1992)
RAUL: Singing You Home from Singing You Home: Children’s Songs for Family Reunification (2018)
RAUL: Home (music and lyrics by Marc Broussard, Shannon Sanders, Marshall Altman, Ted Broussard & Andrew Ramsey, 2004)
Wait ‘Til You See What’s Next from How We React and How We Recover (2018)
All Things In Time from How We React and How We Recover (2018)

Raúl Esparza: vocals
Sara Caswell: violin
JRB: piano, vocals
Lisette Santiago: percussion, vocals
Guido Gonzalez: trumpet
Gary Sieger, Hidayat Honari
: guitars
Randy Landau: bass
Jamie Eblen: drums

Credits:

All photos by Erika Kapin, except the photo of Hal Prince and JRB by Sara Krulwich