Two decades ago Ry Cooder and Nick Gold produced a series of recordings with long-forgotten veterans of Cuban music under the now familiar name “Buena Vista Social Club,” but for me the greatest product of that effort wasn’t the acclaimed all-star band that spent years touring the globe. It was the spin-off recordings from some of that band’s strongest members, among them Ibrahim Ferrer, Compay Segundo, Orland “Cachaíto” Lopez, Omara Portuondo, Manuel Galban, and Eliades Ochoa. They got the chance to share their dazzling musical personalities alongside some of the greatest accompanists possible. Next to Ferrer’s superb 2003 album Buenos Hermanos, my favorite solo album to arise from the BVSC phenomenon was Introducing . . . Rubén González (World Circuit), whose title slyly alludes to the fact that the pianist was 77 when it dropped. (He died in 2003 at age 84.)
Like most of the musicians in the Buena Vista Social Club, González wasn’t known outside Cuba. Even on the island, he was considered a musician’s musician—he was a dedicated ensemble player, formerly employed by great bandleader, composer, and guitarist Arsenio Rodríguez, but he’d never gotten his due. He came out of retirement to join the crew and cut this album with bassist Lopez and trumpeter Manuel “Guajiro” Mirabal (fellow BVSC members) along with timbales player Roberto García and conguero Carlos González. The album’s classic material and strong original pieces made González’s brilliant touch, rhythmic acuity, and harmonic logic vividly felt all over the world; the music is rooted in traditional forms such as cha chas, boleros, danzóns, and guarachas, but the pianist’s improvisational brio is pure jazz.
Last month World Circuit reissued the album on double vinyl and CD, in conjunction with the release of a new documentary film looking back at this whole chapter of Cuban music, Buena Vista Social Club: Adios. The reissue adds a previously unissued descarga (or jam) by González and Lopez and an extended, unedited version of the pianist’s “Tumbao.” Those enhancements are nice, but the original album remains the main attraction—it sounds as fresh and electric as it did the first time I heard it 20 years ago. As I write this post a cool breeze is blowing across my desk, and I can’t imagine a record that suits lovely summer weather more perfectly. My stacked listening schedule usually prevents me from revisiting albums I love, so I’m delighted that the reissue has given me a reason to return to Introducing . . . Rubén González. Below you can get a taste for yourself by checking out the pianist’s riveting take on the classic Rodriguez Fiffe tune “Mandinga.”
Mirror Mind Rose, Papaver (Umlaut)
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, Giya Kancheli: Symphonies 2 & 7 (CPO)
Dirty Projectors, Dirty Projectors (Domino)
Glenn Mercer, Incidental Hum (Bar/None)
Lovedale, Green Sounds (ILK)