Just when you thought the whole Buena Vista Social Club series was getting a bit tired, along comes perhaps its most inspired, playful, and evocative edition yet—bass virtuoso and composer Orlando “Cachaíto” López’s simply titled but far from simplistic debut, Cachaíto. Unlike other members of the Buena Vista collective, López ventures away from the magical streets of Havana to pick up some reggae and dub from his homeland’s neighboring island Jamaica, a little hiphop exotica from Paris, and a big helping of soul power from the United States. On Cachaíto, Cuba is not so much the destination it was on previous Buena Vista Social Club albums as it is the launching pad for an expansive musical vision.

Because López comes from a family of virtuosic and inventive bassists—his father, Orestes López, invented the mambo, and his uncle, Israel “Cachao” López, pioneered descarga—it shouldn’t come as any surprise that he frequently toys around with rhythm, trying to come up with something new of his own. What is surprising, however, is that even though López played on all the previous Buena Vista Social Club recordings and ranks as one of Cuba’s heavyweight musicians, this is the 68-year-old master’s first recording as a leader.

But don’t let his seniority fool you; Cachaíto sounds like an album by a young gun who has a great respect for Afro-Cuban music but refuses to be encumbered by its tradition. López’s pulsating tumbao bass figures—as well as conguero Miguel “Angá” Díaz’s cavernous percussion sounds—anchor the composer’s explorations in Cuban popular music, however unconventional his approach. To this stripped-down rhythmic foundation, López adds jangly electric guitars, punchy horns, haunting strings, and just a bit of subtle studio reverb for good measure. And thanks to producer Nick Gold, the music sounds both massive and spacious, as exemplified by López’s evocative reading of Arsenio Rodriquez’s “Oración Lucumi,” the album’s most enchanting moment. As the string section wafts in and out of an echoing electronic drone, López’s nimble bass melody dances around Díaz’s dense conga patterns. Meanwhile, guitarist Johnny Neptuno strums an edgy Havana-by-way-of-Clarksdale, Miss., tres melody, conjuring an otherworldly feel that does justice to the title’s invocation of Afro-Cuban guardian spirits.

As striking and eclectic as López’s compositions are, they never hit you over the head with their overlapping influences; instead, they stealthily transport you to some unknown musical location. “Redención,” for example, begins much like a typical Buena Vista Social Club outing, with Policarpo “Polo” Tamayo’s stinging flute runs darting above a rolling bed of percussion. But as soon as Jesús “Aguaje” Ramos’ silky trombone solo comes in, Bigga Morrison’s jaunty organ changes the song’s vibe from Cuban to Jamaican to sublime effect, without motion sickness or look-Ma-I-can-play showiness.

López reminds us again just how close Jamaica is to Cuba—and how adept he is at cross-cultural fusion—on the deep-dub groove of “Tumbanga,” which spotlights South African Hugh Masekela’s soulful fluegelhorn, and the swampy funk of “Conversación.” Perhaps the album’s only slight misstep is the ambitiously hiphop-flavored “Cachaíto in Laboratory,” which features French DJ Dee Nasty and, ironically, stands as Cachaíto’s best chance for radio airplay. Lopez’s muscular bass lines could easily serve tracks by OutKast or Pete Rock, but here his bass is treated to such dated beats and soundscapes that the tune comes off like a US3 tribute to Blue Note Records. López’s throbbing bass lines, Amadito Valdés’ steady cowbell clanks, and Morrison’s Gothic organ flourishes, however, save the track from complete disposability. With a club-ready remix by the likes of Joe Claussell or Masters at Work, “Cachaíto in Laboratory” might just catch on with other unlikely collaborators, who could inspire López to take his most adventurous innovations to the next level.

Like López, former Washingtonian Drew Gress is an in-demand bassist who has a small solo discography. After playing for years in New York’s downtown scene with clarinetists Don Byron and Chris Speed, trumpeter Dave Douglas, pianist Fred Hersch, and a host of others, Gress has finally released his sophomore full-length, Spin & Drift. Gress is not so much a virtuosic musician as he is a solid one, so this album, like his 1998 debut, Jagged Sky, focuses more on his compositions than on his playing.

Jagged Sky often placed Gress’ bass in introspective, dark-hued soundscapes that blurred the difference between structured composition and improvisation. Spin & Drift, featuring the formidable ensemble of pianist Uri Caine, drummer Tom Rainey, and alto saxophonist Tim Berne, follows suit, even though Gress’ own playing sounds slightly more aggressive than usual. On the opening “Disappearing, Act 1,” Caine and Berne state a cinematic Wayne Shorter-esque theme as Rainey’s tumbling, loose-limbed drum work gives the piece a sense of danger. Although the track spotlights some of Berne’s most dynamic and emotionally resonant playing to date, Gress’ oblique bass counterpoint almost gets lost in the hyperactivity, rendering a potentially gripping melody stilted and clumsy.

“It Was After Rain That the Angel Came” is more successful, highlighted by Gress’ soft-hued bass solo and Caine’s beautifully impressionistic melody. That tune is more typical of Spin & Drift’s brooding approach, which would seem to be more beneficial to Gress than to Berne, whose playing is often too acidic and cerebral for anything remotely romantic. This time out, though, Berne tones down his usual dissonance, offering edgy lyricism and probing improvisations that threaten to upstage Gress throughout the album. On the trippy “Aquamarine,” however, Gress pulls out his trump card in the form of a pedal-steel guitar. As Rainey steers the composition with a sultry slow-drag rhythm, Gress’ yawning chords stretch gorgeously under Berne’s pensive melody and Caine’s sparse piano accompaniment, which shimmers like a rain shower over a calm sea.

Although “Aquamarine” is the album’s standout, Spin & Drift offers plenty of other reflective riches, such as the haikulike “New Leaf” and the wintery “Pang.” Driven by a powerful rhythmic pulse, full of lush harmonies, and imbued with an autumnal vibe, the disc is hypnotic, challenging, and one of the year’s best sleepers. CP

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