Mexican pianist Hector Infanzon trumps Orquestra Buena Vista Social Club

Singapore International Jazz Festival



Marina Bay Sands/Sunday (March 6)

SINGAPORE had the opportunity to bid goodbye to Cuba's storied Orquestra Buena Vista Social Club, which stopped by over the weekend on their prolonged Adios Tour.

The band had been assembled in the 1990s by Cuban musician Juan de Marcos Gonzalez and American guitarist Ry Cooder, to revive the spirit of a community club in Havana during the Golden Age of Cuban music, which closed in the 1940s. Some of the defunct club's performers became the band's members and their antics were captured on film by famed German movie-maker Wim Wenders in an Oscar-nominated documentary.

Buena Vista are now a 13-member band, whose percussionist is Cooder's son Joachim and whose virtuosic pianist Rolando Luna opened the set with a sublime solo of nuanced nostalgia.

Vocalist Carlos Calunga then glided into none-too-subtle torch songs, as images of the band's deceased members - among them vocalists Compay Segundo and Ibrahim Ferrer and double bassist Orlando Lopez - flashed on the screen behind him. Luna leapt off his stool as he jammed hard on the ivories while laud player Barbarita Torres, a member of the original ensemble, strummed and twanged the stringed instrument, sometimes off-key.

After Calunga's third, humdrum-as-ever number, the heart of the band ambled onstage. Omara Portuondo, octogenarian, roared to life. Everyone - from her lacklustre back-up to a crowd more intent on beer and schmoozing - livened up visibly to her guttural renditions, at once forceful, defiant and lyrical. How could she be 86?

While another original band member, trumpeter Manuel Mirabal, parped away with purpose, dusk turned to darkness, bringing intimations of mortality. Reverie was the order of the day, from Portuondo twirling about with a bandmate during an interlude, to Luna's melancholic inflections. "Luna, Luna, Luna!" yelled Portuondo when he ended.

For all her valiant belting, their eight-song set was simmering, not sizzling, more a jalapeno than a habanero.

Thank goodness, then, for Mexican pianist Hector Infanzon, who came on right after Buena Vista, and attacked the keys with soulful precision. The beer-chuggers and schmoozers froze, then surged towards the stage, as Infanzon unleashed lush clusters of chords, now all fuming ferocity then downpedalling to wistfulness.

He was wild and controlled all at once, launching into Speedy Gonzalez-like scurries in a cantina scuffle - only to taper off in swoony cadences. The crowd went wild with joy.

Infanzon and his three merry men could have been providing the soundtrack to a Fast & Furious movie at, say, the moment when the good guy is trapped in a bus that is sliding off a cliff or when the same guy is in a truck - attached to a jumbo jet that is taking off. The stage lights blazed a hot red, as if to say: A-y-y-y-y-y carumba! This was no habanero, but an off-the-chart bhut jolokia.

Awash with adrenaline, the Berklee alumnus turned up the temperature even more by sparring with drum-meister Enrique Nativitas in a five-minute standoff, and then jamming his socks off with bassist Adrian Infanzon as Luis Gomez went berserk on the bongos.

While Infanzon himself was no spring chicken, his scorching turn at the festival unwittingly showed up Buena Vista. Adios, in this instance, was really adios.