Making OBSESIÓN was indeed an obsessionfor Nelson González.

It was a labor of love for the grand romantic Latin American songbook from which these magnificent songs are drawn. For the musicians he’s spent his life playing with and admiring. And most of all, for his friend Danny Rivera.

They call Danny “the national voice of Puerto Rico.” His interpretations are known for their intense passion, their soaring flights of inspiration, their operatic power, and their dramatic complexity. In Latin America, he’s been a familiar face on television since 1968. He’s the only Puerto Rican to star at Carnegie Hall on four different occasions, and he sold it out every time.

But Danny Rivera is more than that. His on-the-ground humanitarian work in the Antilles has occupied an increasing amount of his time in recent years. He proudly spent a month in federal prison in 2001 for his part in the successful defense of the Puerto Rican island of Vieques against constant bombardment by the U.S. Navy. He’s repeatedly chosen the path of conscience over a more commercial career that’s always been his for the taking.

But he’s even more than that. I don’t know how else to explain it:

There’s a spirit that lives in his voice.

Nelson’s way of capturing the spirit was to keep it simple. They began recording with Danny’s voice and Nelson’s tres (the Cuban-style rhythm guitar with three widely spaced pairs of strings). Then other instruments were added, as few as possible but as many as necessary. The players are musicians’ musicians, chosen not only on the basis of their instrumental skill but for their understanding of the repertoire, and of what it means for Danny to sing these songs. Over a period of years, bit by bit, when Danny could arrange to be in New York, or when Chucho Valdés was in town, or when Martín Rojas could come up from Miami with his guitar, Nelson built up an album that carefully replicates the feeling of something coming together casually.

Bassist Andy González is the rock of a generation of New York music that really did something. Nelson borrowed his first tres from Andy, that’s how far back they go. They’ve played more notes together than the highway has miles, in famous bands, bands you never heard of, and informal hangs. Chucho Valdés, one of the world’s most celebrated pianists, is capable of ingenious polyrhythms and explosive solos, but he partners here as an accompanist, creating a space for Danny to float over. The multitalented Arturo O’Farrill, who contributes piano on “El Reloj” and “Allí,” was playing with Andy and Nelson long before he founded the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra. Violinist Federico Britos is a former concertmaster of the Miami Symphony and made a duo album with Bebo Valdés. Puerto Rico’s Rafael Scharon is the great virtuoso of the requinto, the high-register guitar, unjustly neglected in recent years, that embroidered the voices of the once massively popular romantic trios.

And light a candle for an elder: blessing the album with his presence on bongó is Andy and Nelson’s longtime collaborator, the late Manny Oquendo, who was known in the New York music community for his demanding standards as well as for his uniquely understated style. This was his last recording session.

OBSESIÓN is a statement of the enduring musical values that Danny and Nelson and all the musicians on this album have defended throughout their careers. “When I was a child,” says Danny, “the songs of Rafael Hernández and Pedro Flores gave me the chance to prove that I could sing.” Coming back to these songs seventy albums later, he found different ways to feel the poetry and the melodies. Now, given breath by Danny Rivera, these timeless songs become new all over again.

-- Ned Sublette 

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