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Dedication to Sylvia Rexach
Barbès Records (barbesrecords.com)
Review by Dylan McDonnell

In Dedication to Sylvia Rexach, Richmond, Virginia's Miramar presents a work devoted to faithfully reviving and honoring the music of the titular Puerto Rican composer, multi-instrumentalist, poet, and journalist (1922-1961). Rexach was an autonomous musical professional (as a woman this was an anomaly in Puerto Rico at the time) and helped found the Puerto Rican Association of Authors, Composers, and Publishers. As Yannis Ruel mentions in the dual Spanish-English liner notes, she “defined the feminine bolero” (a slow, romantic ballroom dance in 2/4 time) from a very young age, and grew up in an affluent and deeply artistic household, her father a musician and her mother a poet. Rexach's songs were recorded by many of Puerto Rico's most famous vocalists, and have made their way, in brilliant fashion, into the interpretive hands of Miramar.

Carried primarily by the lush parallel harmonies of Rei Álvarez and Laura Ann Singh and the keyboard work of Marlysse Simmons Argandoña, Rexach's songs feature vividly sensual lyrics and complex metaphors that, according to Ruel, were unprecedented for the bolero and popular romantic music in Puerto Rico more broadly. Most of the songs fall into similar tempos and grooves, and emphasize the quintessential Latin American ballroom sound: the harmonic textures of Western European Baroque/Classical composers, Afro-diasporic percussion (covered here by Héctor “Coco” Barez) and Spanish/Andalusian language and melody.

Rexach's subtlely religious and deeply intimate imagery in “Tus Pasos” mirrors the sweeping dynamism of the string quartet featured throughout the album (which includes multi-style cellist extraordinaire Tomeka Reid). “Sin Ti,” likely the most “groovy” piece, evokes worlds of romantic bereavement while oscillating between only two chords, embellished by the flamenco-influenced guitar work of Bryan Vargas. “Di Corazón,” composed by Rexach at seventeen, which details an internal dialogue about the realness of one's love for another, carries mature emotional weight uncommon for such a young artist.

One of the most striking elements of this record is Argandoña's wonderful implementation of Farfisa organ and Wurlitzer, which offer different kinds of dynamic range within chords. The success of this choice is exemplified by “Y Entonces” and “En Mis Sueños” where the combination of well-placed organ runs and swells play with the lyrical content, in which the internal preservation and extrapolation of love are pitted against “the real thing.” Despite the impact of the electric keyboards, however, Argandoña's harmonic turns, interludes, and shadowing of the vocals on piano in the galloping waltz “Estatua” demonstrate a special breadth of formal and emotional range.

In a word, Dedication is a testament to the emotional and performative research with Álvarez and company have approached Sylvia Rexach's catalog, yet also functions as a project of revitalization. As Ruel mentions, the market for boleros in Puerto Rico deteriorated in the 1980s, almost twenty years after the composer's death. However, her contemplative, richly poetic songs live on in Miramar's equally rich reimaginings of them. - Dylan McDonnell


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