CD Review: Zel – True (Zel Productions)

zelWhile it doesn’t make up the preponderance of my music collection or my music listening time, I have always had a special place in my heart for Latin music. While I am not really sure exactly when I began listening to Mexican and Latin music, I believe the genesis of my affection for it began in my youth. My father’s brother lived in Arizona, right near the Mexican border and we would visit him at least twice a year for two weeks at a time. At some point during these visits, we would pile into my uncle’s RV and travel into Mexico to stay for a few days. Being from a small town in New York, the exotic sights, foods, smells and sounds were intoxicating to me, almost as much as the Mescal and Tequila were to my father and his brother, I reckon. While walking through the cities of these towns in Mexico, I remember many a guitarist on the street corner or hearing the sounds of guitars playing in a cantina with its’ door open wide so the expertly played guitars were able to be heard from the street. While many of these guitarists played with Mariachi bands and other combos, many more were just playing by themselves or maybe with another guitarist. I didn’t think too much of all the guitarists I saw playing at the time since I was only a kid, but today it makes me think of a quote Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones said when asked about his travels to Mexico. Richards said hanging out in Mexico blew his mind as there were more great guitarists per square foot in Mexico than there are any place else in the world. While that quote has more than a little bit of hyperbole in it, my limited experience in Mexico bears it out nonetheless. And, since then, while I don’t actively seek it out as much as I could, when I hear some guitar with a Latin flavor, I am all over it like a hobo on a biscuit.

Imagine then my surprise when I receive this CD by an artist known as Zel in the mail. Immediately it was easy to see there would be some interesting Latin rhythms and (hopefully) some expertly played guitar. For the most part, I was not disappointed as it is obvious Zel has much in the way of guitar chops.

The first song True (the tile song of the album) starts with a catchy, jazzy keyboard riff before Zel’s very skillfully played Latin-flavored acoustic guitar comes in to spice everything up. The song is very uptempo and sounds like it could be used for bumper music for television or radio as it is almost has dance tune tempo and is very bright and upbeat. The second song Kingdom is much slower and evokes a very Latin mood with the assorted percussion and guitar work. There are some synth washes in the background and the song seems like a new age-y version of Latin music, very soothing and relaxing while still containing melodies that grab you and compel you to pay attention. Libertas, the third song on the disc, starts with percussion and synth wash back in the mix before the guitar once again comes in far forward in the mix with the now-familiar Latin stylings. The finger-picked guitar has a very romantic Latin flavor on this cut and while the composition does not sound like a song per se, and has more of a feeling of a loose jam where the guitarist is playing fiercely in a Latin style. The next cut First is much like the second cut Kingdom, where the tempo is slowed and the looped percussion and synth washes combined with the lines played on the guitar lend themselves to a New Age style of Latin music as compared to the last cut, which seemed passionate and off-the-cuff, with more chordal playing and less single lines. Percussion tracks once again highlight the beginning of the next song, Light, before the guitar comes in to play quickly picked lines over synth washes and the drum tracks. Once again, the music sounds very new agey. The next cut, Pearl, mines similar territory, mid-tempo Latin styled guitar over new agey percussion loops and synth washes. Very skillfully played guitar, but at this point I am looking for some variation as the CD is starting to sound very samey and as I am listening to it for musical enjoyment and not meditatively, I am starting to get bored with the sameness of the tracks. The following song, Gate, is very uptempo, with percussion used in a way as to make this cut seem like a track that could be remixed for the dance floor if so desired. The guitar is again the similar Latin-flavored style but with an interesting melodic movement that lends itself well to the tempo and the song. Bongos begin the song with synth washes and guitar soon to follow. Not as uptempo as the last cut but still more uptempo that most of the other songs. Still has a very new agey feel despite being uptempo. The next song Three Days is very slow, almost like a dirge. While missing bagpipes the familar percussion tracks of conga etc are here as well as the synth washes and Latin-flavored guitar. The last song is a reprise of the third song Libertas with a very uptempo mix and reminds me of the music played at bullfights, very uptempo Latin guitar with minimum of synths.

If I were to be grading just the guitar work on this CD, I would have to rate it five stars out of five as the guitar work is excellent all the way around. The playing is very fluid, technically perfect and very passionate, and it is easy to see this artist has guitar chops to spare and could be giving clinics to other guitarists he plays so well. But, if I were to grade the CD on the entire package, I would have to give it only a slightly passing grade due to the sameness of the backing tracks and for the fact there is no standout track, just many tracks with similar characteristics that tend to blend into each other. I guess it would all depend on what sort of market this CD was geared towards. If geared towards the Latin market, I would think the CD would have to vary it up a little more and strive to be a bit more energetic and exciting. If it is more for a sort of New Age-y mood kind of vibe, then this CD succeeds as listening to it almost immediately put me into a more calmer, blissful mood. I’d say take a chance on it. If it doesn’t work for you one way, it may work for you another. Either way, great playing on a CD that could be made better with a little more variety.