NEW YORK - It happened one evening last March during an acoustic set at a Spanish tavern in Greenwich Village, one of those restaurant gigs that are the bread-and-butter for many striving Latin musicians in this town. It was one of those small moments of audience connection that make all the effort feel worthwhile.
Looking up from his guitar, Gregorio Uribe noticed a gentleman intently scribbling some kind of sketch at the bar. At the set break, the man approached Uribe and offered him the picture. He had taken a cloth napkin and produced a charming portrait of the musician, drawn in pen with carefully applied splotches of red wine.
The picture would become the cover art, and “Pluma y Vino’’ - pen and wine - the title, of Uribe’s debut album, which the Colombian singer and multi-instrumentalist was recording at the time.
“I hadn’t even given a thought to the cover,’’ Uribe says over coffee before another restaurant performance in Brooklyn. “And I loved this. It set the mood for the album. It was one of those organic things; it couldn’t be more perfect.’’
Indeed, “Pluma y Vino,’’ whose release Uribe celebrates tonight in a quartet at Regattabar, displays the songwriter’s deft pen and red wine’s mellow, nocturnal feel.
But it opens up as well, revealing structure and a fair bit of spice. The opening bolero, “Una Excusa,’’ is pure romance. But soon come vivid Afro-Caribbean rhythms, strains of clarinet and accordion, the sway of cumbia. And the words, which Uribe sings with plenty of articulation and space, so that even Spanish-language beginners should readily grasp their general meaning, don’t lack for social and cultural message.
“La Toma,’’ for example, addresses a remote Afro-Colombian community who face the threat of displacement from their mineral-bearing land by mining companies and paramilitaries.
“The song says, after 300 years of slavery and 200 years of neglect, all of a sudden now you’re interested,’’ Uribe says. He composed it for a documentary that was made recently about this situation. Another song, “Los Niños del Alma,’’ was written as a hymn for a foundation with which Uribe is involved, and which makes music and art education available to low-income children in several Latin American countries.
And Uribe’s usually soothing voice surges with anger during a passage of “Diga Usted Coronel,’’ a song he wrote about a controversial trial of a military officer in Colombia, Alfredo Plazas Vega. It’s a complicated case, Uribe says, but the song is about “a person who has been judged without any hard evidence.’’
Whether waxing indignant, romantic, or endearing, as on “Mi Super Héroe’’ - my superhero - dedicated to his dad, Uribe’s personality on this record fleshes out the one he’s most known for in New York, as the leader of a 16-person Latin big band that plays well-regarded venues here, including a monthly residency at the Zinc Bar.
“The big band is like a dance band, there to have fun,’’ says Venezuelan guitarist Juancho Herrera, who plays with Uribe in both formats. “His acoustic record is much more thoughtful. It’s like a chronicle.’’
A regular on New York’s new Latin scene, where the jazz and salsa traditions have intersected with folk, rock, and electronic innovations by new arrivals from South America, Herrera has watched Uribe - who only graduated from Berklee College of Music in 2007 and arrived in the city a year later - quickly and confidently find a space for himself.
“He’s direct, sincere, and honest, and people feel that energy,’’ Herrera says.
It helps that Uribe is also highly talented: he earned summa cum laude honors at Berklee (“Hey, you gotta make the most of it,’’ he says, a little bashfully) and he plays guitar, accordion, and drums. He came to singing later, he says, and credits his progress to his friend and voice teacher, Argentine singer Sofia Rei Koutsovitis.
“Pluma y Vino’’ is something of a happy accident. At first Uribe had raised money, through an Internet campaign and fund-raiser concerts, for an album with the big band. But the cost of recording a 16-person outfit proved daunting, and with the blessing of his musicians and backers, Uribe fell back on the smaller project.
“I needed to have some music out there,’’ he says. “And everybody was very supportive and sweet, and that gave me the push.’’
Uribe says many of his funders are in the Boston area; between that and his Berklee connection, he expects this performance to have a family feel. Next is a New York release party, and soon, he hopes, a tour in Colombia, where he’s had the chance to perform a few times with local musicians but not yet to bring his own group.
“I want to create a bridge between the two places,’’ Uribe says. And he promises the next record will feature the big band and showcase innovations being made in the Big Apple to cumbia and other Colombian styles.
“There’s a bigger umbrella here,’’ he says. “Even Europeans and Americans are doing it. The second album will represent that New York cumbia.’’
Siddhartha Mitter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.