Omara Portuondo Steps Out of Semi-Retirement

At 88, Portuondo is still a nonpareil interpreter of boleros and fillin, a Cuban jazz style she helped introduce. She performs at The Freight & Salvage as part of what’s described as her Ultima Beso (Last Kiss) Tour. Fonseca.


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Omara Portuondo performs at The Freight.

CC Ajuntament de Vilanova | La Geltru

The stage of the SFJAZZ Center’s Minor Auditorium practically overflowed with talent at the gala celebrating the epochal achievements of Cuban pianist/composer Chucho Valdés’ last February. But it was the most intimate and quiet performance that provided the evening’s biggest thrill, with Valdés accompanying the frail but full-voiced Omara Portuondo on a graceful and time-stopping rendition of “Dos Gardenias,” the 1940s Cuban standard she’s owned since recording it with the Buena Vista Social Club in 1996.

Valdés was a teenager when they first met in pre-revolution Havana. Portuondo was a dancer in the Tropicana floorshow where his father, piano great Bebo Valdés, was the bandleader. At 88, Portuondo is still a nonpareil interpreter of boleros and fillin, a Cuban jazz style she helped introduce. She performs at Freight & Salvage on April 20 as part of what’s described as her Ultima Beso (Last Kiss) Tour, accompanied by a trio led by the great Cuban pianist Roberto Fonseca.

While she grew up in an artistic family, Portuondo was a shy young woman who deferred to her older sister, a top dancer in the chorus line of Havana’s leading Tropicana Club. Watching her sister rehearse every day, Portuondo memorized the routines, and when a last-minute replacement was needed, her sister and mother convinced her to step in. That was in 1945. She began attracting attention as a singer in the early ’50s when she started performing with a group of jazz-enthusiasts centered around the great, blind Cuban pianist Frank Emilio Flynn. Calling his group Loquibambla Swing, Emilio Flynn pioneered a subtle Latin jazz style called fillin, and landed a daily radio broadcast that gave Portuondo her first widespread exposure. In semi-retirement when she got a call from Ry Cooder, she has made the most of her second act.

Omara Portuondo, Sat., April 20, $42-$46, Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse, 2020 Addison St., Berkeley, 510-644-2020, TheFreight.org.

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