Thursday, June 24, 2010

Ballad Master Omara Portuondo and the Buena Vista Social Club Return to Chicago

Posted By on 06.24.10 at 03:02 PM

Omara Portuondo
  • Omara Portuondo
Last year the drought of Cuban musicians obtaining visas to tour the U.S. began to lift, and though so far only a handful of artists from the island have trickled into Chicago, this Saturday Ravinia presents what's arguably the country's biggest act, playing one of only three dates in the U.S. The Buena Vista Social Club has become a cottage industry, with hit records, a Wim Wenders documentary, and the juice to make Ibrahim Ferrer and Ruben Gonzalez minor stars. The group's third main attraction, and the only one still alive, is Omara Portuondo, who's the featured artist at this weekend's show.

Portuondo, 79, is first and foremost a ballad singer—something reissues of her Cuban recordings for the state-run label Egrem, cut in the 70s and 80s, have made clear, despite the inconsistency of the arrangements and material. But her work with BVSC has often required her to handle more upbeat stuff. Granted, she's always acquitted herself convincingly on such tunes, but as she demonstrates on her most recent album, Gracias (World Village, 2008), she's most comfortable at slow tempos, where she can apply her sumptuous vibrato and generously emotional delivery most liberally. According to its PR, the record was conceived as part fantasy fulfillment and part forward-looking songwriter showcase, and Portuondo gets sympathetic, richly varied support from small combos drawn from a stellar cast of musicians—jazz bassist Avishai Cohen, percussionist Trilok Gurtu, former BVSC pianist Roberto Fonseca, Latin jazz pianist Chucho Valdés, and Brazilian guitarist Swami Jr., among others. Rather than brassy son, most of the songs are delicate singer-songwriter fare, including tunes by nueva cancion greats Silvio Rodriguez and Pablo Milanes—the latter of whom duets with her on his "Ámane Como Soy"—and new compositions by Brazilian legend Chico Buarque, who also duets on his beautiful "O Que Será (À Flor de Terra)," and terrific Uruguayan pop singer Jorge Drexler.

The current lineup of BVSC features a bunch of names that are new to me, but some veterans remain, including trumpeter Guajiro Mirabal, guitarist Manuel Galban, tres player Papi Oviedo, and laud master Barbarito Torres.

photo: Tomás Miña

Today's playlist:

Various artists, Calypsoul 70: Caribbean Soul & Calypso Crossover 1969-1979 (Strut)
Arthur Russell, Love Is Overtaking Me (Audika)
Michael Pisaro, An Unrhymed Chord (Edition Wandelweiser)
Larry Willis, The Offering (HighNote)
Tony Oxley/The B.I.M.P. Quartet, Floating Phantoms (a/l/l)

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