Music : Skeletal Key 

José Rubén De León pays tribute to AgustÍn Lara with a spare, haunting new collection

When José Rubén De León began constructing a show dedicated to the life and music of Agustín Lara, he decided to go to the source. Lara’s romantic ballads have been covered by everyone from Placido Domingo to Nat King Cole, normally bathed in lush strings designed to underline the deep, obsessive romanticism of his lyrics.

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José Rubén De León: Bringing his acting skills to Lara’s dramatic classics.

After studying the sheet music for many of Lara’s best-known songs, De León and his musical accompanists — the father-son team of George Prado on standup bass and Aaron Prado on piano — focused their attention on a series of skeletal recordings made by the master himself, accompanied only by his own piano. Their efforts resulted in an intimate theatrical tribute to Lara’s work, Simplemente Lara, which graced the stage of Jump-Start Performance Co. in 2005. On May 21, at Luna Fine Music Club, De Leon and the Prado duo celebrate the release of a 22-song CD, also titled Simplemente Lara, which documents their work on the project.

The chain-smoking Lara possessed a rough singing voice with limited range, but he also understood his material in a way that no one else did, and his spare recordings found the sadness and vulnerability often buried beneath the romantic passion of his songs. “Those were the ones that really got to me, the ones that were resonating deeper with me,” De León says of Lara’s interpretations.

“His was more like a speaking voice,” De León adds. “He doesn’t really hold notes for very long. I guess you could call him a Latino rapper, one of the first ones. A lot of his songs have these introductions where he’s just speaking, and it’s a real interesting combination.”

In terms of Mexican popular music, Lara was Irving Berlin and Cole Porter rolled into one. Blessed with a rare knack for melody and a tortured poet’s sense of wordplay, he simultaneously exhibited a common touch and a sense of glamour and refinement that made him a larger-than-life celebrity, not merely a behind-the-scenes tunesmith.

For De León, a seasoned actor, writer, and singer, Lara’s mythic story was an irrestistible follow-up to his acclaimed LORCA, a one-man drama devoted to Spain’s best-loved poet. For one thing, it offered De León — a Laredo native with deep roots in musical theater — a chance to return to one of his first loves: singing. It was a passion he’d found little time for since opening a massage center (Live Touch Therapeutic Massage) nine years ago. “I was making excuses not to do something musical, like singing at a wedding or a function, because I’d be tired at the end of the day,” he says. “The last thing I wanted to do was pump myself to go sing somewhere. But the more I got into Lara’s songs, the more excited I got about putting this program together. I’d be thinking, ‘This is really what I want to be doing at this point in my life.’ I love writing, I love performing, and more than anything else, I like the research.”

José Rubén de León:
Simplemente Lara

Sun, May 21

Luna Fine Music Club
6740 San Pedro

De León devoted six months to researching Lara’s life, and even collected stories from people who crossed paths with the great man. A Brownsville woman who grew up in Mexico told De León about a first date she had with a young pilot, with her mother as a chaperone. They went out to a nightclub and as soon as her mother passed through the door, she recognized the scrawny, scar-faced Lara at the piano and fainted. Her daughter, more concerned with impressing the pilot than watching a legend perform, got down on her knees and said: “Mother, get up, you’re embarrassing me.”

Although De León knew only a few of Lara’s tunes before working on this project, Lara did play a key role in his childhood. An avid music lover from infancy (his mother placed a radio at the head of his crib to lull him to sleep), De León amazed his mother when, at the age of 5, he sang a hymn in church along with the priest. When his mother took him to his grandfather to show off the boy’s musical talent, his grandfather said: “I don’t like those religious songs. You need to take him home and teach him a real song, like an Agustín Lara song.” As a result, the first song De León learned from his mother was Lara’s immortal “Solamente Una Vez.”

Simplemente Lara is a triumph not only for De León, but for Aaron and George Prado, who bring a rare economy and subtlety to the Lara canon. At the same time, their jazz roots allow them to exploit the harmonic complexities at the heart of songs such as the gut-wrenching “Azul,” the love-struck “Maria Bonita” (written by Lara for one of his four wives, movie star Maria Felix), and the ethereal “Noche de Ronda.”

While many of Lara’s most famous songs are included on the disc, it feels less like a greatest-hits compilation than a theatrical piece using Lara’s own songs to trace the arc of his life, from the 13-year-old kid playing piano in bordellos to an internationally celebrated icon.

“My understanding is that he pumped up his own persona,” De León says. “I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that he was a very unattractive young person. He always used to say that when God saw him as a child, he said, ‘Man, this is an ugly kid, let’s give him music to survive his life.’ He’d make people laugh about it, but he felt that it was true.”



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