Buena Vista Social Club

Presents Omara Portuondo
(World Circuit)

God bless Ry Cooder for the Buena Vista Social Club. But not, mind you, because Cooder actually had much to do musically with the success of their landmark 1997 album. Cooder's guitar heroics were overshadowed on that album by the dazzling laud playing of Barbarito Torres, leaving Cooder's main contribution to those sessions his ability to stick firmly in the background and let the Cuban masters work their magic. No, God bless Ry Cooder because let's face it: Without his name on the project, the Buena Vista Social Club album would likely have remained an obscure gem hidden in the world music section. We wouldn't have been introduced to subsequent solo albums by Ibrahim Ferrer, Compay Segundo, Ruben Gonzalez, and Eliades Ochoa that have all equaled and sometimes surpassed the magical Cuban romanticism of the collaborative outing.

The latest of these comes from Omara Portuondo, the only woman present on BVSC's album and whose new Buena Vista Social Club Presents Omara Portuondo may just be the pick of the lot. With arrangements by Demitrio Muniz, the director of the famous Tropicana Cabaret in Havana, Portuondo's luscious album culls most of its spectacular cast from the Buena Vista Social Club -- pianist Gonzalez, bassist Orlando "Cachaito" Lopez, and guests Ochoa, Segundo, and Ferrer -- and the stunning variety in its 10 tracks seems to consciously span most Cuban styles of the last 50 years. The album shifts easily from the beautiful opening danzon of "La Sitiera" to the thrilling son montuno of "Donde Estabas Tu," which boasts horn arrangements that would have made Duke Ellington and maybe even Sun Ra blush, to "Mariposita de Primavera," where Portuondo is accompanied only by string quartet, to "Siempre en Mi Corazon," which closes the album on a '50s-style big band note.

The band is masterful throughout. Manuel "Guajiro" Mirabel's trumpet solos are as achingly beautiful as they were on BVSC, and Gonzalez's elegantly quirky piano solo on "8" perfectly complements a beautiful duet between Portuondo and Ferrer -- almost to a point that would overwhelm a lesser singer. But Portuondo is the glue that binds it together; a masterful storyteller, her gorgeously expressive voice seems to encapsulate the heartfelt and bittersweet nature of the traditional Cuban love songs she sings. Portuondo has a biography similar to the rest of her Buena Vista compatriots -- she was something of an international star in the '50s and '60s but had fallen largely off the Western radar until those 1997 Buena Vista sessions afforded her enough visibility to bring the world this gem of her own. Lucky us.

 
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