Time stands still when these two stars of the Buena Vista Social Club perform together. Playing nearly forgotten traditional Cuban music, singer Ibrahim Ferrer and pianist Ruben Gonzalez led their respective groups through bliss-inducing tunes that emphasized melody on par with rhythm and showcased the pre-revolution musical give-and-take between America and Cuba. With four members of the BVSC — in addition to the leaders — on board, this is the closest we in the States are going to get to revisiting the magical moments that defined the “Buena Vista” and “Afro Cuban all-stars” discs as well as the film of their collaboration in Cuba. Quite rightfully, the package is selling out venues everywhere in record time.
In his hourlong set, the 77-year-old Gonzalez shied away from the jazz influences he exhibited on his debut disc “Introducing” (Nonesuch), choosing instead to play free-flowing ballads and lightly swinging boleros and dance numbers. After starting solo with a number that could’ve been taken from a silent movie, band members came onstage progressively until they numbered seven.
Gonzalez was at his rhapsodic best when accompanied by the understated bass of Orlando “Cachaito” Lopez, four percussionists and the muted trumpet of Guajiro Mirabal. Gonzalez loves long-flowing, hand over hand movements that use almost all of the 88s; with a touch of humor in his presentation, coupled with his richly orchestrated style, he conjures a recurring image of the underappreciated Chico Marx, a big band leader of his own (1940s) when Gonzalez was doing pioneering work with the legendary Arsenio Rodriguez.
Before Ry Cooder’s experiment became the Buena Vista Social Club, and in turn became a million-selling phenomenon that has spawned a Wim Wenders docu and a national tour, Ferrer, 72, was an absolute unknown. Whereas the others have had careers reborn, Ferrer was just getting started.
Ferrer’s voice is a heavenly blend of 1950s balladeers Johnny Ray and Jimmy Scott with a dash of Nat (King) Cole thrown in. As much as he’s a throwback to the middle of the century, so, too, is the music — within his first five-minute rumba there were echoes of doo-wop and Duke Ellington woodwind voicings. Demetrio Muniz’s first trombone solo was awash in big band influences, stunningly smooth and in no hurry to keep up with the steady rhythm set by the 12 musicians behind him.
Singer Omara Portuondo, a popular member of the BVSC, lent a considerable feistiness to the proceedings, singing first with Gonzalez and later in several duets with Ferrer.
The real discovery here, though, is electric guitarist Manolo Galban (the original BVSC guitarist, Compay Segundo, just released his second solo album and is successfully touring on his own as a leader). In a rock or jazz setting, Galban would be perceived as a Dadaist, a musician who drew on the work of Gary Lucas with Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band and the late experimentalist Sonny Sharrock. Galban’s playing is all over the map, and he seemingly won’t stop at anything in his terse and jagged solos, running up and down the fret board with chordings and single guitar lines that are never less than riveting.
The two bands will return to L.A. for perfs at the Wiltern Theater (Feb. 18) and Royce Hall (Feb. 23).