After World War II his band was the resident orchestra at the Waldorf-Astoria for over a decade and also made many movie appearances, and it is this period of the Forties and Fifties that Cugat made his most worthwhile music. Though criticized at the time for being too commercial there’s no question his musicians were as accomplished as many more progressive bands of the era, and it’s hard to find an artist in any time in history attacking pieces designed, at their heart, as sugary ear candy, with a greater level of verve and panache.
Just because something tastes sweet and slides down easy doesn’t mean it can’t be artfully composed and skillfully orchestrated. Thus, while cognoscenti may roll their eyes when you slap a bit of Cugat on the Dictaphone, they’ll secretly be tapping their toes (assuming the pointy Italian styles allow sufficient movement). I’ll assume if you’ve read this far you’re no such snob, and would love a Cugat recommendation to add to your collection.
While it’s not the cheapest nor easiest to find, The Best of Xavier Cugat, a 2000 Japanese import on the Universal Music label (Mercury), catalog PHCY-3029, all instrumental, is definitely the way to go (currently available from Amazon private sellers for under $30). Brought to prominence to many modern listeners by Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai through the soundtracks to Days of Being Wild and 2046, this collection is guaranteed to get your feet moving, put a smile on your face, and perhaps provide a greater appreciation for the precision required to execute the Latin styles.
“My Shawl,” a Cugat composition that became his signature tune, gets the disc cracking with its slightly-mysterious melody doubled in the brass, coaxed along by helpful maracas and tinkling vibes, while the world famous “Perfidia,” which rollicks along amiably, features one of the more pointed string arrangements you’re likely to hear, punctuated, and propelled, by percussion cracks.
“Siboney,” a great favorite, keeps the standard, punchy Latin rhythms throughout while heavily reverbed brass aggressively cuts through the rhumba mix like a knife. “Jungle Drums,” a stylish Bolero, lopes along in almost campy fashion, immediately bringing to mind dark-suited gents whisking their lady friends across the dance floor of the Waldorf, while they probably took their seats quickly for the sprightly “Brazil,” unable to keep up with its incendiary tempo in a dignified manner, instead letting the women cha-cha by themselves.
When the crowd called out for a slinky mambo, “Sway” was a likely response, and a glorious one at that, this time the piercing high brass perfectly balanced by lower reeds, making it impossible not to sway to and fro. Commercial, you say? So what? This is exuberant, stylishly conceived and executed music that brings a smile, not appropriate for a funeral, but absolutely perfect for far more occasions than Free Jazz.
My favorite has to be “Maria Elena” with the pogo-stick xylophone/brass counterpoint that compels the listener to immediately begin hopping in place, and used effectively by Wong in Days of Being Wild -- where Leslie Cheung spontaneously begins to shuffle and spin. And, though high on the camp-o-meter, I still have a soft place in my heart for a Cugat tango, and “Isle of Capri” never fails to deliver, regardless of its crowd-pleasing intentions.
Nearly all of the disk’s 24 tracks are strong, save “Green Eyes” which, though faithfully, if not dutifully executed, pales in comparison to the Nat King Cole Spanish language version (“Aquellos Ojos Verdes”) featured in the film In the Mood for Love (ironic that Hong Kong film would see such effective use of Latin music).
In the end, this is a disk to savor, to treasure and to fly in the face of musical snobs. As life is short, you may as well spice it up with a little Cugat from time to time.