(Higher Octave Music)
It isn't hard to find a silver lining in Buena Vista Social Club, the enchantingly sensual collaboration between Ry Cooder and some of Cuba's legendary-but-almost-forgotten musicians that became an unexpected worldwide smash. But one of the sweetest aftershocks is surely the fact that the album has given the Cuban musicians involved some long-overdue recognition. As a result we're now treated to solo albums from the principal players in the Buena Vista group. The latest of these efforts comes from Eliades Ochoa, whose new disc with his group the Cuarteto Patria, Sublime Illusion, picks up where Buena Vista left off. Ochoa is the tres guitarist and singer who left his mark all over Buena Vista (for those who have seen Wim Wenders's spellbinding documentary of the same name, Ochoa was the caballero in the cowboy hat), but whose career has been somewhat out of the limelight compared to the phenomenal touring success stories of his compatriots Ibrahim Ferrer and Ruben Gonzalez. Although comparisons to BVSC are inevitable, there are major differences between Ochoa's vision and the sound of the whole Buena Vista group, mainly because Ochoa and the Cuarteto Patria hail from the opposite end of the island, in Santiago. This distance gives Sublime Illusion a much more rural, countrified sound, and it also thrusts Ochoa's sparkling acoustic guitar and tres playing front and center.
Ochoa is a fine singer, but it's his guitar work that really dazzles on Sublime Illusion, like his delicious tres leads over the title track and his beautiful picking on "Volver." In fact Ochoa is so masterful that by the time Ry Cooder sits in on the last track, "La Comparsa," his accompaniment is anticlimactic: After Ochoa's fireworks, Cooder simply isn't needed. A more interesting cameo is made by Charlie Musselwhite on "Teje Que Teje" (on which Los Lobos guitarist David Hidalgo also guests). His bluesy harmonica meshes so well that he almost makes the group's music sound like a Cuban version of the Delta blues. It would be stretching, of course, to label Ochoa a Cuban Robert Johnson or Charlie Patton, but the similarities are there, from the masterfully picked acoustic guitar to the heartfelt traditional songs.
Not that anyone will mistake Sublime Illusion, with its shouted choruses and infectious tumbao beats, for being anything but Cuban. Which, of course, is why the record is so irresistible. It's unfortunate that Ochoa and his Buena Vista mates have had to wait this long for their due, but as Sublime Illusion proves, this is just the beginning.
-- Ezra Gale
Seeking a living link between Billie Holiday and Cassandra Wilson? Search no further than Abbey Lincoln, a gracefully aging earth mother who remains an irrepressible life force at age 68. Along with Shirley Horn and Sheila Jordan, she's the last of a rapidly disappearing generation of major female jazz singers born before bebop.
Lincoln touches on Holiday's jazzy melancholy as well as the folksy directness of Wilson on Wholly Earth, her wholly captivating latest disc. Also an actress, with credits ranging from 1964's Nothing But a Man to Spike Lee's recent films, she imbues each performance with a sense of drama. The title track, its sing-song melody urged on by Daniel Moreno's broiling percussion, has the singer shifting into a scream just this side of a screech, and then sliding into a whoop.
The singer considers leaving terra firma with "Look to the Star," built on Bobby Hutcherson's gently undulating vibraphone and abetted by trumpeter Nicholas Payton's luxuriant tones. Lincoln follows that very impulse on the spacy "Another World," her free-flying voice (and later, Hutcherson's marimba) playfully mimicking the communicative notes sounded by the spaceship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
There are lovely interpretations here, too, including a bluesy rethink of "If I Only Had a Brain" (from The Wizard of Oz) and memorable renditions of "Midnight Sun" and "Another Time, Another Place."
The voices of Lincoln and Maggie Brown, burnished and brightly lit, respectively, alternate verses and come together on "And It's Supposed to Be Love" and the Maya Angelou-inspired "Caged Bird." The two make a sensible, appealing blend. The same might be said about the entirety of the artful Wholly Earth, more evidence of a thrilling '90s comeback for Lincoln that promises to last well into the new millennium.
-- Philip Booth