Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Afro-Cuban All Stars at the Shedd, February 16

We're trying to see more live music this year.  So we saw the Afro-Cuban All Stars a couple of weeks ago.  If you know your Buena Vista Social Club (I don't, beyond the one record), you know (I didn't, until now) they're an ongoing project by Juan de Marcos Gonzalez, who seems to have done more to organize the BV project than Ry Cooder, while getting less international cred for it.  So it goes.

Anyway, we went knowing nothing about the cluster of records (beyond the one) that came out in that late-'90s moment of international credulity.  Which is just as well, because the current ACAS lineup has only one person in common with the earlier lineup, and that's de Marcos Gonzalez himself.  That lineup seems to have been Cuban musicians based in Cuba, unheard-of outside for decades;  the current lineup is mostly a lot younger, and seems to be Cuban emigré entirely.

We went with no knowledge, in other words, but high expectations.  And they were exceeded.  It's a magnificent group.  Praise especially for pianist Gabriel Hernandez, who played everything from the funkiest riffs to the most complicated classical fantasias, effortlessly and with great aplomb (not to mention a stage presence that combined Einstein and George Costanza).  And for singers Evelio Galan and Emilio Suárez, each of whom alternately seduced and testified in very different, yet equally irresistible ways.

But more than the individual soloists (and there were lots of satisfying solos all around), what got me was the tightness and intricacy of the band's ensemble playing.  It was a dance-music set, and a crowd ready for dancing, and de Marcos Gonzalez didn't have much trouble getting people up out of their seats.  But me - and I'll note right now that despite being very white and old and built for comfort not speed, I actually kinda don't hate to dance - I couldn't move.  I was so enthralled by watching the band that I went beyond feeling the rhythm.

I don't mean something too mystical by that.  Or maybe I do, but not like that.  I mean that I've always been more interested in music than lyrics, and more interested in music that's played than music that's assembled.  And especially as an adult, in middle age, as I settle into a career that's essentially all about solo production, that actually discourages too much collaboration, I'm more and more in awe of what it takes to play music in a band.  The unison, the interplay, the wordless communication.  When a line of three or four Latin percussionists locks in together, each playing a different pattern but all of it synching up perfectly, when a bassist and a pianist jump in and do things that are completely different yet completely complementary, when a four-horn section plays a series of riffs, each a variation on the last, each coming at just the right spot.  And when all this happens on a stage, with everybody facing a different direction, with mike stands and cords and spotlights obstructing every player's line of sight...

It's not magic.  It's a very real, very human achievement.  And that's the great mystery of it.  How is that done?  I'll never understand it.  But more and more, I'm in awe of it.