Roberto Fonseca replaced pianist Rubén Gonzalez in the Buena Vista Social Club in 2001, when he was 26. He later toured and recorded with Ibrahim Ferrer. Fonseca’s bona fides also include chops. He commands power and precision approaching that of his great Cuban elders, Bebo and Chucho Valdés.
But Zamazu is slick and forgettable. Fonseca’s hard pieces, like “Congo Árabe,” are mostly monotonous. His soft pieces, like “Suspiro” and “Llegó Cachaíto,” are melodically saccharine. In the piano passages on which Fonseca is presumably improvising, he very rarely comes upon an interesting idea. He is loyal to the groove, his ripples are pretty, but he sticks to Afro-Cuban licks—liner-note claims to diverse non-Cuban influences notwithstanding.
The notes also state that on “Ishmael,” he aspires to the “spirituality and depth” of its composer, Abdullah Ibrahim. Those are exactly the qualities of Ibrahim that elude Fonseca.
The sonic quality of Zamazu is also disappointing. All of Fonseca’s ensembles (as small as three and as large as 15) sound congealed; the instrumental colors run together. With its chugging rhythms, generic melodies and ooh-ing vocals buried in the mix, this album blends into the background like Caribbean Muzak.