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Josh Rouse

Josh Rouse Josh Rouse

El Turista

I know it’s kind of funny, this Midwestern guy doing Brazilian songs in Spanish,” says Josh Rouse about his new studio album, El Turista. “I don’t know if it fits, but I like the way it feels.”

Unexpected and utterly sublime, this sultry song cycle will shuffle seamlessly in tandem with Getz/Gilberto and Graceland, albums as boldly surprising in their eras as El Turista is in this one. The record marks a new direction for the critically acclaimed cult artist, while offering the musical sophistication and emotional depth Rouse’s devoted constituents have come to expect from him thanks to a consistently enthralling body of work highlighted by the modern-day landmarks 1972 (2003) and Nashville (2005), both of which are generously sampled on the marvelous 2008 Rhino retrospective The Best of the Rykodisc years.

The new album bears the distinct influence of Spain, which the Nebraska native made his home five years ago with his Spanish wife Paz Suay; the couple and their first child now live in Valencia, on the Mediterranean coast. On El Turista, Spain serves as the point of origin for a globe-trotting musical journey that touches down in Cuba, Brazil and Africa, as well as Nashville, where the bulk of the tracks were recorded with Rouse’s longtime producer and close collaborator Brad Jones, and the couple’s former home of Brooklyn, where the seeds of the record where sown and some of the songs dreamed up.

The opening instrumental “Bienvenido” seductively sets the scene, so balmy you can practically feel the Mediterranean breezes caressing your skin. The swaying “Lemon Tree” and “I Will Live on Islands,” with its percolating Afro-Cuban groove, recall Paul Simon at his most expansive, though the latter track’s rhythm was inspired by the Congo music anthology Roots of Rumba Rock 1953-1954. “Duerme” (a.k.a “Drumi Mobila”) and “Mesie Julian” were both recorded by the revered singer/pianist Bola de Nieve, who was known as the Louis Armstrong of Cuba, though Rouse’s take on each sounds uncannily like a Joao Gilberto bossa nova from the ’60s.

“Valencia” and “Las Voces,” for which Paz provided the requisite colloquialisms, are vibrantly redolent of city life in their hometown. The gentle “Sweet Elaine” could have been on 1972 if not for its double-time Latin beat and billowing strings. “Don’t Act Tough” is graced by a Jim Hoke sax solo that splits the difference between Stan Getz and Roxy Music’s Andy Mackay. Rouse even manages to find a place for the Civil War-era American traditional song “Cotton Eye Joe,” though you’d never guess its origin from this lush, dreamy treatment. And yet, despite these wildly diverse sources and reference points, El Turista is miraculously cohesive, as seamless as Michael Phelps’ racing suit.

What’s more, Rouse sings en espanol like a native Valencian, at least to these American ears. “I’ve been speaking Spanish here every day, all day, for five years,” he points out, “so it’s become pretty natural. And being a musician, if you have an ear, you pick up the details, the accents, so you’re not speaking like Sam Elliott in Spanish.” He punctuates the quip with another soft laugh. “My Spanish friends here get a kick out of it. They say it sounds great, but there’s still an accent, and I’m hoping it’s the same charm that you hear when a foreign singer sings in English.”

Part of this naturalness comes from Rouse’s level of comfort in his present surroundings. “I was drawn to the Mediterranean, everything about it, from the food to the pace. Except for the ocean, the lifestyle is not that different from the Midwest. It’s kind of slow―no one’s in a rush to get anywhere or to get anything done, so that felt like home. Although Nebraska is beautiful, the weather here is a lot nicer eight months out of the year. And living by the ocean has definitely had an influence on what I’m doing. I’d pick up a guitar and the chords would have a tropical feel, because that’s the climate here―it feels right. I know it’s kind of funny, this Midwestern guy doing Brazilian songs in Spanish. I don’t know if it fits, but I like the way it feels.”

So where did the inspiration come from for this totally surprising record? “I didn’t have any kind of clear vision of what the record should be,” Rouse confesses. “I was just searching, looking for a new direction. I wanted to do a jazz record, but I can’t really play like Bill Evans, so I shot that idea down. A couple of years ago, my wife put this Bola de Nieve record on and I said, ‘Wow, what is that?’ I hadn’t heard anything like it. I’d never come across any music here in Spain that inspired me enough to really do it, so hearing that record was a breakthrough for me. Cubans sing so well in Spanish; the syllables have such a nice sound, almost as if it were in Portuguese. So it was hearing that and going, ‘OK, I can do this.’ Bola de Nieve has been dead for a while and he’s still pretty much undiscovered; I figured he was a good guy to get inspired by.

“So I did a cover version of ‘Mesie Julian,’” he continues. “From there I started experimenting, trying different things. Brad and I started off with ‘Don’t Act Tough,’ which is like a modal jazz thing that keeps the same chord cycles going over and over. Then we did the instrumental ‘Bienvenido,’ and when we laid it down, it hit me how different it was from anything I’d done. So we started on that path, and then we got together with Sam Bacco, a Brazilian percussionist, and put some of that in there. At one point, Sam said, ‘It’s like dinner music, then―wow―here comes the party.’”

Another wrinkle involved linking up with the oral tradition. “Those old folk songs end up mutating as they get passed from person to person,” says Rouse. “I’d been doing my thing for a while―which I guess I’m still doing―but I wanted to look back 50 or 100 years or even more, dig through these really simple songs and melodies, and try to put my own twist on them.”

Josh dollies back to add another layer of perspective: “After the last record, I felt like I needed a break. I just wanted to record songs without thinking about releasing a record. Whenever I got together with Brad and put some things together, I kept saying the whole time, ‘OK, I’m not making a record.’ And then, over a year and a half, as we kept laying things down, I started to think, ‘Wow, this might work.’”

Does it ever. From the sultry bassline and languid piano notes that open “Bienvenido” to the final hovering chords of “Don’t Act Tough,” it’s readily apparent that El Turista is one of those special records―a wholly original, utterly beguiling work that creates its own magical cosmology. If ever a term “instant classic” applied to a record, it’s this one, as you’re about to discover.

“I’ve made records in the past and thought, ‘A lot of people might like this,’ but that never really happened during this record. I mean, I want people to hear it, but I really made it for myself. I wanted this one to sound like something that was completely my own taste, something that would fit in my record collection, maybe next to Vince Guaraldi.” There’s that laugh again. “So in one sense it was a selfish record, but it’s also the most adventurous thing I’ve put out, in terms of variety. It’s a directional shift from what I’ve been doing, but it feels like a stepping stone as well. From here, I can go in a lot of different directions.

“I’m a decent songwriter,” Rouse acknowledges. “I can make up a melody. It’s like cooking: you can mix different ingredients together and if the base of what you have is really good, it’s gonna turn out good whether it’s electronic or blues or funk, or whatever. It’s just being inspired by something new. That’s what I have to do to keep going―I have to find new music, get into new things and give it a try. The Rhino compilation came at a perfect time. There’s that body of work; this seems like a good time to go do some different things.”

What’s Spanish for “Vive la difference”?

―Bud Scoppa, September 2009

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