You can't blame Ry Cooder for wanting to try something new. It's been six years since the original Buena Vista Social Club sessions and almost 50 years since prerevolutionary Cuban music had its heyday. Ibrahim Ferrer's first solo CD, Buena Vista Social Club Presents Ibrahim Ferrer, referenced the classic Cuban sound with judiciously updated arrangements and plenty of genre clichés. On Buenos Hermanos, producer Cooder takes a different tack that doesn't consistently play to Ferrer's strengths. There are many fine moments here as well as some outstanding songs, but missing are the warmth and intimacy that made Ferrer's first solo disc a triumph.
Ferrer was selected for the original Buena Vista Social Club when Cooder and musical coordinator Juan de Marcos González needed a bolero singer with the smooth, old-fashioned style of the 1950s. Later, on his first solo disc, Ferrer took full advantage of his mastery of slow to medium-paced highly romantic songs. But Buenos Hermanos immediately jolts us in a different direction. On the opening cut, "Boquiñeñe," Ferrer struggles a bit to hold his own against the song's busy rhythms and aggressive instrumentation. Hermanos uses the same pair of drummers, Jim Keltner and Joachim Cooder, who appear on Mambo Sinuendo, Cooder's recent collaboration with Cuban guitarist Manuel Galbán. While the rockified approach isn't as obvious as it was on Galbán's disc, the intensified percussion and churning electric organ on the title cut nearly overwhelm Ferrer's nuances.
"La Música Cubana" yields happier results as the piano, bass and congas leave lots of space for Ferrer to fill in with his jazzy phrasing, deft turns and high-register excursions. A skittering piano solo by Chucho Valdés creates just the right balance of playfulness and tension, preparing the way for Ferrer's climactic re-entry after the instrumental break. But its shift from quietude to a sudden swelling of sound is telegraphed by the increasingly loud banging drums, rather clumsily making the transition in the process. Other cuts similarly use accompanists to redundantly state a mood, as if Cooder didn't trust his gifted singer to convey the emotion on his own. And these additions often play up the old-fashioned aspects of classic Cuban music rather than emphasizing its timelessness.
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The classic bolero "Perfume de Gardenias" begins promisingly with Ferrer's beautiful voice, but just as he really begins to purr, a syrupy chorus of oohs and ahhs tells us how we're supposed to feel with all the subtlety of heartbeats in a horror flick. Ferrer's effortless sensuality here is undermined by an erotic "Look of Love"-style sax solo that's way over the top. And cute piano filigrees cheapen the loveliness of the Trio Matamoros song, "Como Arrullo de Palma" ("Like the Palm's Lullaby").
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Several songs on Buenos Hermanos are just plain superb, however. The classic Mexican song "Naufragio" ("Shipwreck") is cast as a duet with accordionist Flaco Jiménez that not only hits just the right tone of rootsiness and pop sophistication but also suggests a brilliant marriage between Cuban and Tejano styles that deserves further exploration. Manuel Galbán ushers in "Mil Congojas" ("A Thousand Agonies") with shimmering surf guitar that makes the violins that enter later feel superfluous. Fortunately they don't get in the way of an affecting song, which shows that Ferrer's voice, like bluegrass singer Ralph Stanley, may be in the best shape of his life late in his career.