Delightful though the Buena Vista Social Club still is, even this group of peerless – and elderly – musicians cannot continue to shoulder the responsibility for Cuba’s prodigious music. Step forward, then, Juan de Marcos, composer, bandleader and force behind the Social Club. With 50 musicians and DM Ahora! – Cuba’s first completely independent record company – de Marcos is picking up where Ibrahim Ferrer and the late Ruben Gonzalez left off.
Step Forward shows that Cuban music is in rude health, from the opening jam, a freestyle affair with the frenetic title ‘220.127.116.11.18.104.22.168.5’, to the closing elegy dedicated to Gonzalez himself. Organized under the banner of the Afro-Cuban All-Stars, the album is as much testimony to what’s gone before as what will be. Strong performances by emerging stars like vibes player Tamara Castaneda, pianist (and Chopin expert) Dave Alfaro and violinist Luis Lang provide ample testimony to the security of Cuba’s musical heritage.
Despite the rich diversity of the All-Stars’ musical experience, Step Forward’s solid Latin flavour will surprise no-one. This is jazz, Cuban style. There are some diverting touches: ‘On the Road Again’, guest starring French tropicalista Bernard Lavilliers, turns into a smooth, lounge number; while the Afro-Cuban religious standard, ‘Addimu a Chango’ conjures up a cloudburst to launch a rolling number that, at one point, offers up a fuzzed-up guitar solo. If these extras make the tracks stand out, it’s only to lead us back to the All-Stars’ rhythm machine. After all, if it’s not broken, why fix it?