Omara Portuondo

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Desafios Review

by Michael G. Nastos

On this 13-track recording of voice and piano duets, there is no doubt from the first note to the last that you are experiencing the complete mastery of two Cuban music legends. Individually, the genius Valdés brings to his instrument, the piano, and the dramatic, bluesy, off-the-cuff singing (in Spanish) of the husky, pitch-perfect, purely articulated Portuondo, can both easily stand alone. But together, in this setting, they are making magic. You'll hear a variety of themes written by non-published Cuban composers (two by Valdés, ) suggested on the spot in the studio. It allows the two a rare spontaneity and freedom from rhythmic structures that is created, not produced. There are songs of love, regret, straight blues, the indomitable spirit of the oppressed Cuban peoples, pleading for salvation, and especially, lost in depression ("No Puedo Ser Feliz" ("Cannot Be Happy"). No need to break them down, just know that the razor's-edge emotions and the integrity of this simpatico pairing of musicians and friends melds perfectly with every twist, turn, phrase, dynamic shading, and teardrop. Valdés uses a raft of jazz inflections, classical references, and folk melodies at his command throughout. Portuondo is never limp or mushy, always forceful in singing what's on her troubled mind, and expresses it in a way you clearly understand even if you don't know the words. Her meaning is unmistakable. A triumphant recording to be sure, and a hallmark in the annals of the continuing attempt to expose American audiences to the rich traditions of folkloric jazz-informed Afro-Cuban culture. A must buy.

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