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'Pretty Boy' Offers Pretty Soulful Sound

Ed Morales

August 11, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Newsday. All rights reserved.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the chance to interview Puerto Rican salsa singer Jerry Rivera, and he revealed to me that it was his birthday - he had reached the ripe, old age of 29. It seemed hard to believe that he released his first album, "Abriendo Puertas," way back in 1990 when he was still a fresh-faced teenager. Twelve years and 11 original albums (plus greatest-hits compilations) later, Rivera is celebrating the release of "Vuelo Muy Alto," which continues his recent strategy of mixing pop ballads with straight-ahead salsa tunes.

Despite having a formidable tenor voice and a strong sense of tropical swing, Rivera, who will appear at South Street Seaport (212- 732-8257) Sunday, sometimes is the victim of his pretty-boy looks. Having come on the scene at the height of the salsa romantica era, which is often criticized as excessively formulaic, Rivera is sometimes lumped in with artists of lesser quality. "The media has always respected me," Rivera said from his home in Puerto Rico. "But some artists say I'm successful because I'm good-looking or have that image. Well, all artists get criticized, but it seems to happen to me more in Puerto Rico than anywhere else in the world."

While not exactly old-school in execution, "Vuelo Muy Alto's" tropical moments are almost on par with Marc Anthony's, and its pop ambitions have a depth and soul that leave behind the superficiality of an Enrique Iglesias. Hard-edged salsa tracks "Ella," "Hablemos El Idioma del Amor" and the title track are arranged by Ramn Snchez and feature veteran Puerto Rico-based session players. But the opening bursts of the album are the ballad version of the title track, written by Colombian pop songwriter of the moment Estefano (of Thala fame), and the pop-salsa "Otra Me Querr," which features a backup chorus in English.

But that doesn't mean that Rivera has crossover plans anytime soon. "I think a lot of artists have lost themselves in their dreams and are filled with illusions that they can enter the mainstream market," Rivera said. "There are few artists who have really achieved the crossover. I think there's a very large and extensive Hispanic audience that needs more artists recording in Spanish. To cross over is something that is often forced, and I don't think you can have fun with that."

Rivera devotes considerable time and energy to being a spokesman for Act Now!, an AIDS- awareness organization, and is one of the few tropical artists to continuously speak out about a subject too often taboo in the Latin music world. He wants to reunite with guitarist Carlos Santana, for whom he sang vocals on "Primavera," which appeared on Santana's Grammy-winning album "Supernatural." But most of all, Rivera just wants to enjoy the moment, which offers him an unusual mix of youth and maturity.

"I think this is a very exciting period for me as an artist," Rivera said. "I knew I'd be a singer since I was 6 years old. I'm still young, but at the same time, I have a lot of experience for my age. This is probably the most important stage of my career."

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