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Ruben Gonzalez: Momentos

Chris May By

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This is one of those evenly tempered and prettily mellifluous albums which sound at first like background music, but which reveal a subtle and sophisticated beauty if you pay closer attention. Like guitarist Johnny Smith's transcendental '52 masterpiece Moonlight In Vermont, this roughly contemporaneous compilation of archive recordings by Cuban pianist Ruben Gonzalez sounds superficially like the output of a hotel lounge band playing politely for the well-heeled tourist trade. It never strays far from tune or pulse and it definitely won't frighten the horses... cue footage from Dr. No or any early James Bond movie shot in the Caribbean.

Momentos isn't a transcendental masterpiece, it has to said, but it is a quietly beguiling collection of small- and big-band dance music from the mid '50s through early '70s. Cuban roots aficionados will find much to enjoy in Gonzalez's easy mastery of son, bolero, and cha cha chá. Born in 1919, he was among the first Cubans to introduce piano to son ensembles during the '40s. He spent most of the '50s working in nightclub and radio bands in Venezuela, Panama, Colombia, and Argentina, returning to Havana in the early '60s and going on to play with Enrique Jorrin's Orchestra for over twenty years. He acquired an international reputation in the mid '90s through his work with Buena Vista Social Club. He died in 2003.

A few of the tracks—"Date Una Vueltecita," "Como Siento Yo," and "Nuestra Cancion"—do indeed verge perilously close to piano/bass/percussion trio cocktail music. But even they repay attention for the guileless and gently infectious pleasure they take in melody. There are only two real dogs, "Indestructible" and "Tu Corazon Otra Vez," both of which feature a Wurlitzer organ which sounds like it was played by Alice Coltrane (and I'm a fan) on bad acid (I mean, really bad acid).

The most interesting tracks are those recorded with big bands. "Enriqueta" has an undeniably cheesy horn arrangement—think Lawrence Welk, not Cuban All-Stars—but is saved by the gloriously blowsy high-note trumpet work of Jorge Varona. Three tracks recorded with trombonist Pucho Escalante's jazz orchesta are the real gems, with nothing remotely cheesy about their Ellington-inspired charts. The edgy, Anatomy Of A Murder-reminiscent "Zancudo" has great trombone, sax, and vibes solos, and there's more class trombone work on the pensive "Que Infelicidad" and bluesy "Fantoche." A duet with bassist Fabian Carturia, "Fabiando," and the piano/bass/percussion trios on "Mil Congojas" and "Yo Te Enseno Lola" are all vibrant small-group tracks.

Excellently remastered, Momentos is let down only by the poorly annotated liner notes, which are virtually bereft of personnel and other session details. But that's a minor quibble, and it doesn't get in the way of some great music.


Track Listing: Date Una Vueltecita; Enriqueta; Fabiando; Como Siente Yo; Nuestra Cancion; Prestame La Bicicleta; Indestructible; Ambrosio; Mil Congojas; Zancudo; Yo Te Enseno Lola; Que Infelicidad; Fantoche; Tu Corazon Otra Vez; Todo Aquel Ayer.

Personnel: Ruben Gonzalez, piano. Plus various personnel not listed in liner notes.

Title: Momentos | Year Released: 2005 | Record Label: Escondida Records

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