HAVANA (AP) – Cuban pianist Ruben Gonzalez, who found new fame in the mid-1990s playing with Compay Segundo’s Buena Vista Social Club band, died Dec. 8 in Havana. He was 84.
The Cuban Music Institute did not provide a cause of death. Gonzalez’s keyboard gymnastics provided the heartbeat of the Buena Vista Social Club’s string of traditional Cuban “son” music albums beginning in 1997.
The smallish man with grizzled hair gained global attention as the pianist on the opening album of the series, the Grammy-winning “Buena Vista Social Club.” The London Daily Telegraph quotes Ry Cooder, the U.S. guitarist, saying Gonzalez was “the greatest piano soloist I have ever heard,” defining his style as a “Cuban cross between Thelonious Monk and Felix the Cat.”
The best-known Buena Vista figure, guitarist and lead singer Compay Segundo, died in July.
Gonzalez also played on subsequent Buena Vista albums that featured fellow older artists Ibrahim Ferrer, in 1999, and Omara Portuondo, in 2000.
But most of his individual fame came with his solo “Introducing … Ruben Gonzalez” in 1997, and an additional solo album, “Chanchullo,” three years later.
Born in the central province of Santa Clara in 1919, Gonzalez had originally wanted to be a doctor but enjoyed music so much he began studying piano at a conservatory in the eastern city of Cienfuegos in 1934.
He moved to Havana to become a musician in 1941, first recording with Arsenio Rodriguez, a pioneer in Cuban-rhythm orchestras of the time, then joining the Orquestra de Los Hermanos.
Gonzalez later traveled and worked in Panama and Argentina, finally returning to Havana and playing in clubs including the famed Tropicana night club.
He joined forces with pianist Enrique Jorrin’s band in the early 1960s, and they played together until Jorrin’s death in the mid-1980s. Gonzalez took over the band for a time, but later retired.
Gonzalez in 1996 met up in Havana with Ry Cooder, who produced the “Buena Vista Social Club” records, and his career was reborn.