Ardent, eloquent, vintage Cuban jazz

Posted: October 12, 2013

The immense respect currently accorded Latin jazz would probably not run as deep, or be quite as universal, if not for the Buena Vista Social Club, a loose confederation of Cuba's finest musicians and singers whose eponymous debut made sudden stars of artists long forgotten due to the dictatorial reign of Fidel Castro.

Guitarist Ry Cooder gathered its members and produced their 1997 album, which went on to win the 1998 Grammy for best traditional tropical album. Bringing the world the sound of Cuba's golden years, the '40s and '50s of sun-dappled Cubano jazz innovation, the club became a brand as each of its original players recorded solo albums.

Now, an outfit titled Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club - made up of original clubbers and newcomers - is on tour, and they performed a loving, ardent show Wednesday at the Merriam Theater.

Clubbers' numbers may have dwindled since their epic Carnegie Hall show of 1998 (which this writer attended and recalls warmly) with the passing of guitarist/vocalist Compay Segundo, pianist Rubén Gonzalez, and singer Ibrahim Ferrer. But the Orquesta's mix of original clubbers - trumpeter Manuel "Guajiro" Mirabal, laúd virtuoso Barbarito Torres, trombonist Jesus "Aguaje" Ramos, vocalist Omara Portuondo, guitarist/singer Eliades Ochoa - and new players is no less dedicated to the elegance of vintage Cubano jazz.

From the brisk instrumental version of the much-loved "Chan Chan" to the vibrant, all-member chant of "Candela," this was part party, part celebration of each player's skills within the Orquesta as a whole. With piano, bass, conga, and percussion creating a compelling, hypnotic groove, the brass swelled throughout moments like "El Ruiseñor del Guateque." The arrival of Ochoa, in his signature cowboy hat, and the enchanting Portuondo made the event only more sacred. Throughout his segment - songs such as "El Carretero" and "Estoy Como Nunca" - Ochoa's voice was softly elastic and his guitar skills exquisite. Portuondo, for her part, brought the heat, tugging at her long blue dress as she pranced across the stage. The 82-year-old's sweet, dramatic voice toyed with the teasing, upbeat sensuality of "Quizás, Quizás, Quizás" and the soft bolero/son of "No Me Llores Más" with grace.

The only problem with the night's proceedings? They ended all too soon.

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