Here in the New York City area, we had been rooting for a few more wilting summer days so we could break the record for the hottest July on record. After all, why suffer and not be able to claim you lived through the hottest July on record. Alas, there's New York -- we were too cool, coming up a tenth of a degree short.
We all have our summer coping mechanisms -- repeated cold showers, Ranier cherries in a bucket of ice water -- but I have always made liberal use of music that is not just cool, but cools.
The obvious place to go is tropical countries where they have every reason to create music that wards off the heat. Here are a few of my old standbys and some recent releases.
The best Brazilian musicians -- not unlike their best futebol players -- move with a mesmerizing speed and power but seem to defy gravity. An overlooked Brazilian gem is Carnaval So Ano Que Vem by Orquestra Imperial, one of the many projects of Caetano Veloso's son, Moreno, and some top-flight musical pals. Here they do a set of sambas with a gafiera-style big band, which is a rare configuration these days, adding the occasional electronic sounds as a jaunty tip of the porkpie to modernity.
With the band's swinging insouciance, there is a definite Rat Pack vibe, but the instrumentalists are spot on, playing jazzy arrangements behind a variety of vocalists. This one is so cool it will keep the ice in your capirinha from melting.
Uruguay's Jorge Drexler also mixes a touch of modern electronica with acoustic instruments. Barely known in the U.S., his stateside claim to fame is writing the Oscar-winning title song to Che Guevara road movie The Other Side of the River. His wonderful Eco was repackaged with that song and sold in American market after his dark-horse win.
While the lovely Al Lado actually sounds clumsily tacked on to the album's end, it is a quibble for the gorgeous collection of songs. Arrayed around Drexler's sweet, whispery croon, the songs are artfully arranged and are gently upbeat, powered by an understated thatchwork of percussion.
Cuba is another tropical country with almost too many enormously talented musicians. While the international spotlight is mostly on Cuba's dance-oriented big bands, the grey-bearded iconoclast Pedro Luis Ferrer deserves more recognition. Ferrer's outspokenness has him on the outs within Cuba though he has been a respected singer-songwriter for decades.
His beautiful self-titled U.S. debut was released stateside in 1995. He has recorded sporadically, but this one is worth seeking out. He creates a rootsy, rural ambience, but it is immaculately arranged and produced. Ferrer's soulful singing is the focus, surrounded by soft percussion, sparkling tres and guitar and the occasional sweet chorus.
This summer has produced several worthwhile coolers. Putumayo has released Tribute to a Reggae Legend, meaning Bob Marley, and while Marley's own recordings are a high standard to match, the collected artists do well by his songs even if they don't venture to far rom the originals. Brazilian chanteuse Ceu does a subtle deconstruction of "Concrete Jungle," teasing at the melody in an off-kilter way like a modern Astrud Gilberto while her band holds steady to an understated groove. The other international artists represented render honeyed versions that verge on the "lite,"but overall this does well by Marley's canon.
Sierra Leone's Refugee All-Stars's Rise and Shine also leans heavily towards reggae. The group formed while in a refuge camp, escaping the violent civil war in their homeland. They began to play to lift their spirits and those of their fellow refugees, but were "discovered" by a documentary team and subsequently the world.
Their new album is a slightly-rough-at-the-edges, upbeat collection of tunes self-consciously designed to lift spirits and brims with a bigger-than-petty-politics spirit.
Mexican-born, Brooklyn-based Rana Santacruz represents a new generation of musicians who are inspired by tradition, but not in the least bound by it. On Chicavasco, he combines Mexican regional styles with Irish elements, for a mix that mixes together better than anyone would have expected. Part of the reason the cocktail works so well is Santacruz's sweet voice and elegant touch. His judicious use of a banjo recalls the sound of The Pogues, though without their punk fury. This unexpectedly beautiful album hasn't completely found its audience yet, perhaps because it is such a quirky mix, but it's too endearing not to find more fans.
So it's on to the ambivalence of August, with an accursed heat that we now want to hold on to like a bad love affair because of the sad promise of cooler weather in the offing.