Eliades Ochoa Sublime Illusion

Unless you’re cheered by the lofty sales figures and fortunes amassed by the phenomena du jour, there are precious few feel-good stories in music. Well, Buena Vista Social Club is a feel-good music story for the ages, as well as the aged. The Ry Cooder-produced reunion of spry and venerable, but largely forgotten masters of Cuban son music, including singer Ibrahim Ferrer, pianist Ruben Gonzalez and singer/tres player Compay Segundo was a worldwide hit and a living document of an elderly, but strikingly vibrant spectrum of music of great warmth and unforced passion. Even Wim Wenders was inspired to make a straightforwardly happy movie with his recent documentary on the tour and recording of the honey-voiced, 73-year-old sonero, Ibrahim Ferrer. Maybe it’s traceable to a peculiarly Cuban temperament, but the striking thing about Ferrer, after his years of working menial jobs, forgotten by the music world, is his humility, gratitude and utter lack of bitterness. That serene joyfulness radiates from this album, whether Ferrer sings an up-tempo son standard or croons a bolero duet with female counterpart Omara Pontuondo on the heartrending "Silencio," but as impressive as Ferrer’s versatility is, the ballads are where he is to be most treasured. Cooder has described unearthing Ferrer as similar to discovering a Nat King Cole, but for emotive force, elegant phrasing and vocal effortlessness, you could throw in Johnny Hartman, Sam Cooke and maybe even Jeff Buckley. As celebrated as Ferrer now finds himself, singer-guitarist Eliades Ochoa is perhaps the most underrated singer of Buena Vista. A broad-faced man with a wide mouth, narrow eyes and earthen complexion, Ochoa’s face bespeaks both the simple dignities and hardscrabble realities of Cuban life, and his voice, a strong, appealingly reedy tenor fills in the stories and bittersweet emotions his face suggests. Sublime Illusion has received little of the hoopla that the better-promoted Cuban releases on World Circuit have enjoyed, but stacks up well next to them with its easygoing guitar melodies, emotive vocals and the subtle upwelling of bass and signature clave rhythms bedrocking Ochoa’s son. Barbarito Torres, Cuba’s reigning master of the laud (a slightly larger mandolin) is more of a specialist. Since he doesn’t sing, the focus is shared between the singers in Torres’s own ensemble, as well as guest spots by Ferrer and Pontuondo, and the spirited, upper register melodies picked on the laud. Of these albums, Torres’ probably showcases the broadest cross-section of son. For many people, though, the star of Buena Vista Social Club is the ageless nonagenarian Compay Segundo, whose mounting years have neither dimmed his irrepressible smile nor dimmed its rakishness. A good eight decades of cigar-smoking have only burnished his baritone, giving it a resonance that would be noteworthy in a man half his age. Calle Salud has Segundo sharing vocals with Hugo Garzon and one track with French crooner Charles Aznavour in an affable, lazy afternoon of an album considerably less gritty than his Buena Vista counterparts, attributable to the mellowing effect of the clarinets throughout. We should all wish Segundo, Torres, Ochoa and Ferrer, as well as the rest of their Buena Vista compadres many more years of earthly existence, and even admit to selfish motives for doing so: I just want to hear a lot more albums by them. (Virgin)