One of the off-shoot individual projects of the global Buena Vista Social Club phenomena, this little masterpiece of an album first came out in 1997, produced by Nick Gold, and is arguably one of the very best of any of the albums that the constituent members ever recorded. Twenty years later comes an extended and deluxe edition complete with gatefold box sleeve and additional notes, celebrating this vintage Latin American set of musicians from Cuba who conquered the world and, inadvertently, led to a thaw in cultural relations between Cuba and the United States that served as precursor to the thawing of political relations under the Obama administration.
Revisiting the music twenty years on, one is still struck by the rawness of the studio sound which was recorded live with no overdubs. It certainly lends a timeless quality to the music. Various all-time great Cuban composers are showcased on this album, but there is unquestionably one who sticks out in particular and that is Arsenio Rodriguez. He is quite simply one of the all-time greats of Latin music, and not only an outstanding composer, but equally a gifted instrumentalist. Rubén González first made his name as a young musician as a sideman with Rodriguez.
In general, a variety of Cuban styles are on display on the album and these range from fast-paced guaracha and explosive descarga numbers to the more relaxed cha cha cha and bolero genres. Tellingly, González proves himself to be equally adept in all of these.
Of the uptempo tracks, ‘Mandinga’, is a personal favourite and one that has been covered by another giant of the Latin piano, Eddie Palmieri. On this interpretation, González adopts a medium tempo with vocals and trumpet entering half way through. It is a stunning rendition. In close competition, the percussive son muntuno piece, ‘Tumbao’, is mightily impressive with chanted vocals and the pianist demonstrates an admirable dexterity and facility with the ivories. The tastiest of repetitive riffs seems to go on for ever, but over this there is some scintillating improvised percussion work. One unissued piece comes in the shape of, ‘Descarga Rubén y Cachaito’, which is a juicy jam session of a number and one with an air of distinction and telepathic communication between pianist and bassist.
Three of the original album numbers are now found in extended form, but still retain their essence. In a more sedate fashion, the danzón style is illustrated on, ‘Almendra’, which builds up from a slow beginning into a thrilling crescendo. In a more staccato mid-tempo vein, the opening number, ‘La Engañadora’, is a cha cha cha that also features the sound of the trumpet. A second piece in the same style is, ‘Tres lindas cubanas’, and this is showcased by some delicate bass and piano work.
All in all a superb piano recording and still sounding as fresh now as when it first surfaced.