DISCOVERED, AS IT were, by Ry Cooder during a ethno-musical fact-finding mission he took to Cuba early last year, 77-year-old pianist Ruben Gonzales is the de facto star of three Cooder-orchestrated albums: Buena Vista Social Club, the Afro-Cuban All Stars' A Toda Cuba Le Gusta, and Gonzales's own "solo debut," Introducing. All these records are highly recommended pleasure cruises, but Ruben's is the best--stormy and unpredictable.
His playing oozes mad science. Set against slow, stately Eurocentric rhythms (boleros danzons, etc.) and performed by an ace backing band, Gonzales's cagey style has room to move and morph, something funkier Cuban grooves (rhumbas or sons for instance) might not have accommodated. With complete control, Gonzales gleefully dresses the music's fluctuating melodies with meticulous ingenuity.
His response to the band's flow is impeccable. By subtly shifting or forcibly playing against the music's grain, as on "Tres Lindas Cubanas," Gonzales emboldens the rhythm section's jolts in cadence with sly, often simple melodic phrasing. Introducing's other star, trumpeter Manuel Mirabal Gonzales, effortlessly slides around his counterpart's style. When Mirabal becomes torero on "Combanchero," Gonzales tightens up; the pianist's stride punctuates his foil while forcing Mirabal to blow more fully. This style swiping is good, but Gonzales is at his best when he's straight and focused (as in the descarga "Tumbao") or just plain gorgeous (like the unaccompanied bolero "Como Sineto Yo"). How many more Gonzaleses wait to be discovered as the anti-Cuban cultural embargo slowly disintegrates? Only the CIA knows.
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