It would have been foolhardy six years ago to suggest that the collective of Cuban musicians between the ages of 60 and 90 known as the Buena Vista Social Club would have an extensive life beyond its immensely popular debut album. Yet not only have the 18 or so musicians involved in the initial project managed to stay healthy and keep performing throughout the world, they’ve spawned solo careers and a second wave of musicians preserving song forms from the 1930s and ’40s. And Ibrahim Ferrer, the singer in BVSC whose first hit record was released in 1955, remains a focal point, touring with an assortment of BVSC vets and consistently playing this music the way it was heard in pre-Castro Havana.
Nonesuch has released “Buenos Hermanos,” Ferrer’s second solo disc — his first in four years — and the musicians who appear with him on the record backed him at his two packed shows at UCLA’s Royce Hall. Material from the second disc filled more than half of the nearly two-hour concert, which exemplified how free and liberating this music can be as well as how soothingly old-fashioned, with shades of classic American big bands. Unlike the work of the Buena Vistas, this music is dominated by horns, with no acoustic guitars or their offspring in sight.
Ferrer possesses an ample voice and provides a steady force as a front man. He carries a melody, however, with considerable grace and ease, even as the percussionists and eight horn players swirl around him. Evening’s closer — and the only tune in the set from the Buena Vista album — “Candela,” was a Cuban tumbao at its wildest, the percussionists rambling freely away from any steady beats and the horns following suit. Ferrer, with his two backup singers offering one word harmony every few measures, heightened the number’s velocity and spirit and managed to keep it from spinning entirely out of control.
Control, though, is this unit’s strong point; anything with the appearance of ad-libbing was completely intentional and pre-planned. The night opened instrumentally with sensual interplay among the two trombonists, Aguaje Ramos and Demetrio Muniz, and trumpeter Guajiro Mirabal, and even after Ferrer took over, the space allotted for instrumental breaks was generous and fulfilling.
Ferrer’s band benefits from the rock-solid bass of Orlando “Cachaito” Lopez, whose lone solo disc is the most forward looking of any BVSC band member and, in some ways, the most artistically sound. Lopez’s on-the-beat bass work frees up the drummers to go their merry way, the clave left to work in tandem with Lopez. Electric guitarist Manuel Galban, who just made an album with BVSC producer Ry Cooder, was sadly underutilized in this setting.
The true revelation here was pianist Roberto Fonseca, stepping in for the retired Ruben Gonzalez, now 83. He released two albums last year on the Egrem label, and here he used the works of Gonzalez and Chucho Valdez as a jumping-off point. He is more flamboyant than either of his predecessors — Valdez handled the 88s on “Buenos Hermanos” — and when he was given room to stretch out, especially on “Mil Congojas,” Fonseca hinted that he was well-versed in the history of jazz piano, from the stride of James P. Johnson to the block chords of McCoy Tyner. He, along with a dozen of his band mates, arrive at this music with no prior Social Club association, paving the way firmly for Buena Vista Social Club: The Next Generation.
Ferrer and band will perform April 17 at the Beacon Theater in New York.