UNFORGOTTEN : Rubén González ‘Introducing… Rubén González’ (1997)

Some albums are a long time in the making. In a world where most artists are content to release albums every few years, it takes quite impressive degrees of procrastination to put off making an album for as long as Rubén González did. Whilst most musicians release their debut albums at some point in their 20’s or 30’s, González waited until his late 70’s. Although he had been playing the piano most of his life, 1997’s ‘Introducing… Rubén González’ was, for all intents and purposes, his debut album, at least as far as the wider world was concerned. 

González had spent the past fifty years or so as an ever-present fixture of Cuban Jazz, but rarely in the limelight. Although he had released one solo album- a 1975 self titled effort – before ‘Introducing…’, commercial success was not forthcoming, and González settled to spend the ensuing twenty years as a backup musician; celebrated and respected by connoisseurs but ultimately unknown to a wider public, and certainly unheard of to the West outside of a niche audience.

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A chance at wider recognition initially came through an ambitious project helmed by Ry Cooder. Cooder’s idea was to bring together various long serving pros from the Cuban Jazz world and form an ensemble of rare pedigree; although the resultant group – Buena Vista Social Club – would go on to become a household name in contemporary Latin music, the concept was initially rather novel and not a little over-ambitious. A 1999 documentary film and a successful 1997 album were enough to prove that it was a risk that paid off and it left those in the band with a newfound fan-base in the US and Europe.

The sessions for the band were deeply fruitful, not only producing the Buena Vitsa album, but also the debut album from the Afro-Cuban All Stars, a similar project with much cross-over of talent. González performed on both albums and gave such effortlessly flowing performances that he was encouraged to cut a solo album at the same time. ‘Introducing…’ is the sound of a man joyfully rediscovering his own musicality; although influential in his time, González had largely given up on music prior to the recording of the album, arthritis being a likely cause for his abandonment of the instrument through which he had helped shaped Cuban music during the ’40s.

His return to music was a wise decision however; his playing on ‘Introducing…’ has all the fluidity and grace of a much younger musician – a playful, sing-song lilt often finding it’s way into the swaying groove of the Latin rhythms and Jazzy chords. The album may have been González’s long deserved moment in the spotlight but performances from the rest of the band are far from understated. The eager Latin rhythms of ‘Cumbanchero’ are as assuredly executed and effortlessly compelling as González’s own performance. The gleeful squeal of trumpet adds another streak of flavour to the album’s heady aromas, with frenetic soloing every bit the equal of González’s own significant improvisational talents.

Only a handful of the album’s songs are originals, with González instead opting to interpret pieces from some of the genre’s best known names. With this decision came a freedom to stretch out and explore; without the need to create their own solid musical bedrock González and his intrepid sonic adventurers were free do what they did best: jam.

With the imminent release of a Buena Vista Social Club follow-up documentary, ‘Introducing…’ sees re-release for the first time on 16th June, boasting extended versions of two cuts and a previously unreleased song from the sessions, ‘Descarga Ruben y Cachaito’. With an album as liquid smooth and flowing as this, extended improvisation is a welcome enhancement, allowing already expansive pieces to grow in girth without risking overload. It only amounts to a few minutes of extra music but it’s a welcome refresher to an album that genre devotees have had the last two decades to get to know. ‘Descarga Ruben y Cachaito’ is an even more welcome inclusion – quite why it didn’t make the cut the first time around is anyone’s guess; it fits into the album like a missing puzzle piece and those previously unfamiliar wouldn’t even know it hadn’t always been present on the album.

As a statement, ‘Introducing… Rubén González’ is inspiring proof that great debut albums don’t always appear early in life. It’s a record that buzzes with the euphoric exuberance of one becoming intimately reacquainted with his own innate musicality. It’s a record that’s weathered the ages well; perhaps partly because it was timeless to begin with. Sounding as much the product of 50 years ago as 20 or even here-and-now, it has held up well – tastefully discreet production no doubt helping with that. ‘Introducing… Rubén Gonzálezis the album that brought it’s creator to the attention of a wider Western audience and listening back to it now, it’s not hard see why.