Omara Portuondo

Omara Portuondo is the latest (and last) of the featured members of the Buena Vista Social Club to record a solo album, and it is a brilliant crescendo to the series that began with the collective's 1997 Grammy-winning debut. It is not surprising that on this rhapsodic CD Portuondo shows she can more than keep up with the boys. Unlike some other deserved but perpetually struggling Buena Vista artists, she has long been a star in Cuba. Her urbane blues stylings embody the spectacular drama and desperate decadence of Havana nightlife over the past five decades.

Beginning her career on radio in the Forties, singing with Latin-jazz pianist Frank Emilio Flynn, Portuondo also danced and sang in various revues at the Tropicana, then joined the famed female orchestra Anacaona. She is best known as a founding member of the vocal quartet Las D'aida, singing alongside Elena Burke and Moraima Secada (Jon's aunt) for fifteen years, during which the group defined the languid ballad style aptly called “filin'.”

Portuondo was Billie to Elena's Ella; such were the comparisons to Holiday that the Cuban singer had been introduced on radio as “Miss Omara Brown.” On this CD her Spanish interpretation of “The Man I Love” (“El Hombre Que Yo Amé”) is played as a rhythmic bolero, Portuondo's honeyed vocals filled with uplifting sadness.

At nearly 70 years old, Portuondo is a natural beauty, and like the lines on her glamorous face, the years on her voice only enhance the earthy sensuality of her song. A layer of smoke permeates this recording. Even the opening track, “La Sitiera,” a traditional country song with accompaniment by fellow Buena Vista member Eliades Ochoa, imparts a distinctly nightclub ambiance.

Beautifully arranged, the album features a string quartet and full brass section for the sound of the orchestras of the Forties and Fifties, while maintaining the rootsy, rather than slickly produced, sound that first drew listeners to Buena Vista. The record is impeccably produced by World Circuit head Nick Gold and Jerry Boys, who engineered all the previous records in the series in Old Havana's Egrem studios.

The great band leader Arsenio Rodriguez's “No Me Llores Más,” sung in duet with Ibrahim Ferrer, is a rousing highlight. Buena Vista compatriots Compay Segundo, Ruben Gonzalez, Pio Leyva, and Orlando “Cachaito” Lopez all rejoin Portuondo here, and former Los Zafiros guitarist Manuel Galban lends his Sixties groove with electric riffs on the bolero “Canta Lo Sentimental.” Portuondo does an exquisite turn on “Veinte Años,” reprising her solo from the Buena Vista album with so much feeling it's hard to stand. While the emotion in her voice can make you shiver, Portuondo always swings, never crossing the line to sheer sentimentality. She is the consummate Cuban jazz singer, and as this recording attests, one of the world's greatest torch singers.

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Judy Cantor