Ibrahim Ferrer, the "official" lead vocalist of Buena Vista Social Club, and producer Ry Cooder take numerous chances and many labyrinthine journeys (guaranteed to piss off all of the purists) on their third collaboration for the World Circuit/Nonesuch label, yet manage to come up with the most beautiful fruit of their collaborative efforts to date. The pair took tons of chances, recording both in Havana and in Los Angeles and bringing in not only additional musicians among Cuba's top session players -- such as guitarist and keyboardist Manuel Galban, Orlando "Cachaito" Lopez on bass, and Miguel Diaz on congas, to name three of more than a dozen -- but also adding Jim Keltner to the drum mix, along with Cooder's son, Joachim, who handles these chores on every track. Keltner, the younger Cooder, Ry, and Galban also play together on a few tracks. But add to this already eclectic mix master Cuban pianist Chucho Valdes and vanguard textural trumpeter Jon Hassell as well as the Blind Boys of Alabama on one cut and you have a recording that is at once celebratory, charming, eclectic, and, well, brilliant. Ferrer's talents as a vocalist transcend all boundaries and musical types, yet he makes every song a Cuban song, one rooted in the earthy spirit of his native Havana. "Perfume de Gardenias" has the Blind Boys replacing Ferrer's regular Cuban chorus of backing vocalists and features the great saxophonist Gil Bernal as well as Galban on a wonderfully understated yet commandingly melodic piano. The track lies in the seam, where the Blind Boys add a more restrained and rounded backing to Ferrer's pricelessly gorgeous croon; Bernal and Galban move this folky ballad into the realms of a jazz/pop tune, and it still comes off as a firmly Cuban song, rooted in the heat, the rhythm, and the passion of everyday life in Havana. "Mil Congojas," which follows immediately, features the band backed by a string orchestra. Ferrer feeds off the atmospherics and allows his voice to literally drip from his throat and enter the mix as if he were singing to the angels. In addition, coming off these two ballads, so silky and gorgeous, is "Hay Que Entrale a Palo a Ese," a steaming son with a large percussion section shoring up the backing chorus and Ferrer using a rapid-fire delivery to add to the rhythmic intensity of the track. In addition, there is Valdes' "Boliviana," a folky love song rooted in the traditional melodies of Cuban Indios and extrapolated to fit a more contemporary Afro-Cuban musical framework -- Abdullah Ibrahim himself could have composed the music here, so saturated in South African melodic and harmonic structures it is, with Valdes' sense of blurred, elongated time signatures and shifting rhythmic patterns. Hassell's trumpet adds a wonderfully simplistic element to the female backing chorus and Ferrer pours his heart into every crack and crevice of the song, splitting it wide open and letting its longing show through. The record closes with a burner, "Oy el Consejo," once again a traditional call-and-response son tuned into an intensely rhythmic polysyllabic poem via Ferrer's no-holds-barred vocal. In sum, this album reveals what is truly possible when musicians of other cultures get together to serve the music, not individual talents. And though Ferrer proves himself yet again to be one of the world's greatest treasures as a singer, he is always loyal to Cuba, ever the slave of the rhythm, ever the angel of the song itself.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek