When Los Angeles guitarist Ry Cooder went to Cuba three years ago to produce the Buena Vista Social Club sessions, it's doubtful he envisioned that the resulting album would go on to become a million-seller, spawning a worldwide craze for traditional Cuban music and becoming the most miraculous revelation in Latin music during the '90s.
Better yet, the record, featuring a group of elderly Havana musicians, opened the door for its key artists to record separate projects, resulting in an additional wealth of excellent music.
The two most rewarding of those albums are the debut efforts by 80-year-old pianist Ruben Gonzalez (described by Cooder as "a Cuban cross between Thelonious Monk and Felix the Cat") and smoky-voiced singer Ibrahim Ferrer, 72.
The material from both records was at the center of the two musicians' show Thursday at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts. The evening was a stunning demonstration of the Buena Vista phenomenon at its apex.
After two years of touring and recording, the backing group, which includes superb instrumentalists such as bassist Orlando "Cachaito" Lopez and trumpeter Manuel "Guajiro" Mirabal, functions like a well-oiled machine, exhibiting a tightness and precision that enhance the flavor of the songs.
During the first half of Thursday's show, the focus was on Gonzalez, who was received with the kind of fervor usually reserved for rock stars.
The pianist placed his labyrinthine solos at the service of delicate musical tableaux that were enriched by touches of muted trumpets and the occasional trombone solo. He excelled on Ernesto Lecuona's "Siboney" and the catchy "Mandinga," a variation of the classic son "La Negra Tomasa."
What's surprising about Gonzalez is his constant playfulness, the way he can be technically ambitious at one moment and then instantly switch to a lighter, almost comedic mood. He showered fellow musicians with his trademark smile, sharing plenty of laughter with Cachaito, his partner in powering the ensemble's rhythmic overdrive.
Singer Omara Portuondo added spice to the proceedings with an exuberant version of Maria Teresa Vera's bolero "Veinte Anos."
Gonzalez then retired and turned things over to Ferrer, who supplemented the core group with an eight-piece brass section and the electric guitar of Manuel Galban, from the '60s doo-wop group Los Zafiros.
Displaying an inspiring youthful vitality, the singer offered all but one of the 11 tunes from his solo album, "Ibrahim Ferrer," one of 1999's best.
Ferrer's versions of the boleros "Silencio," "Nuestra Ultima Cita" and "Herido de Sombras" (a Zafiros hit) were sinfully sensuous, the semi-orchestral arrangements enveloping his voice in a soft cushion of lush texture.
During the first of two lengthy encores (the second teaming the two stars), Ferrer sang a duet with Portuondo on the bolero standard "Dos Gardenias," dancing with her during an instrumental passage in front of the breathless, visibly moved audience. In an era obsessed with shallow youth and prefabricated pop stars, it was a particularly gratifying sight.
* Ruben Gonzalez and Ibrahim Ferrer play tonight at 8 at Royce Hall, UCLA. Sold out. (310) 825-2101.