Luis Conte Cuban Dreams

What an unusual pleasure from an unlikely source! The nostalgic title, graphics and Conte's corporate resume (percussionist for Phil Collins, Celine Dion and Eric Clapton) seem to indicate another Buena Vista rip-off. However, Conte's Cuban Dreams are of Santiago, home of the toughest Afro-Cuban rhythms on the island. After starting with a montage of crashing waves and Radio Marti and a nice little son, Conte launches into a wildly ambitious audio collage of different Cuban voices, melodies and rhythms. "Walk to Carnival Medley" shows off the full, slick Californian production values in the best sense. Even when expensive synth pads creep into "Cielo y Tierra," the complex songwriting doesn't yield to treacly temptation. The inclusion of some esoteric instruments (you've got to hear the Chinese trumpet!) more than makes up for any potentially cheesy moments. Perhaps Conte's film work (The Lion King) influenced his insightful approach to layering spoken, sung and scatted vocals. Conceptually, this record's experimentally theme homage to Cuba recalls Daniel Ponce's New York Now, from the early '80s. This is an expertly constructed song cycle with great production. (Unitone)