This four-CD set is obviously for completists, but in some respects it's almost easier to recommend this reasonably priced package than agonizing over a good one- or two-disc compilation. It's very strong on historical information, with the main biographical essay (in Spanish, French, and English) focusing in detail on the Banda Gigante era. Spanish readers get selected lyrics and brief profiles of the songwriters who wrote for Beny Moré. Social factors aren't overlooked -- Banda Gigante was formed out of Moré's determination to assemble a top-rate group of black musicians to counter the discrimination practiced by Cuban nightclub owners in the late '40s and '50s. Moré is a fundamental figure in Cuban music who worked with Perez Prado before going out on his own, and the first orchestra leader of Banda Gigante was Alfredo "Chocolate" Armentaros, later Celia Cruz's partner for decades. This music has nothing to do with '90s cocktail mambo trendiness or kitsch -- this is serious music that defined a cultural moment as well as Cuban popular music geared to a mass audience. The first impression of the 91 chronological tracks here is of general high quality along with a law -- unwritten or not -- of one dance side and one ballad per single. The lush horn voicings with mellifluous saxes and flashing trumpets are big band-derived and the rhythms either lope along or lock down the clave from the start, with the improvised forays Moré was known for in live performance reined in by the three-minute song format. The bolero ballads border on hokey, but the romantic heartthrob quaver Moré has in his high-pitched voice allows him to play the suave, expressive lover man to the hilt. The arrangements and songs do follow the same lines, so there is consistency and continuity in the sound, with the difference coming in the details that surface with close listening. "Devuélveme el Coco" breaks the mold a bit with a walking bassline; the pretty, swinging "Tú Verás Margot" goes for a clave city cha cha; and "Guajiro de Verdad" locks the groove down with choppier horn charts and female backing vocals. "Baila Mi Son" and "Batanga No. 2" are notable uptempo romps and "Apúrate Mi China" is a son montuno with some impressive horn charts.
"Ya Llegó la Hora" is another excellent uptempo piece and also pinpoints a fairly dramatic jump in the recorded sound quality prompted by a change in studios. The band and vocals alike from the July 1955 sessions sound noticeably more present in comparison to the previous tracks cut in February that year. Moré must have been forced back to the other studio because the sound again nosedives on three tracks cut in August 1956, but the quality is recovered after that for the final three-plus years of his recording career. The gentle "Rezo en la Noche" starts with tasteful piano flourishes in the introduction before the full Banda Gigante enters for the lush ballad, and "Mi Amor Fugaz" is another downtempo tune worth mentioning. "Trátame Como Soy," "Maracaibo Oriental," and "Tumba Tumbador" all stick out in their uptempo way, and "Soy Guajiro" is a particularly strong tune identifying with the Cuban common man. But the true killer groove is "Qué Bueno Baila Usted!," with cowbell percussion and excellent trombone and trumpet solos. It's a major shame that the song is cut short at three minutes; any dancer worth his or her salt should have no trouble living up to the title because the performance seriously rocks out. Grabaciones Completas is a historically important and musically satisfying collection, but over four CDs and 91 tracks of listening, it's inevitable that a certain amount of sameness settles in. That's especially true for non-devotees of vintage Cuban popular music, which did have its rules, styles, and rhythm patterns to follow, so it's a tough call to recommend it for anyone beyond confirmed fans. Then again, the entire recorded output of a crucial Cuban music giant at his peak is contained here. It's hard to tell precisely how much effect Castro coming to power had on Moré's career, but the recordings dried up after May 1960. By then, it was already too late for Beny Moré to dry out, and he died of cirrhosis of the liver three years later.