Chucho Valdés: ‘Tribute to Irakere (Live in Marciac)’ Review

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A reminder of how pianist Chucho Valdés changed the course of Cuban music, Larry Blumenfeld writes in this review for The Wall Street Journal.

When pianist Chucho Valdés presented “Irakere 40” at New York’s Town Hall earlier this month, he rekindled the sound of a band with which he changed the course of Cuban music four decades ago. Older audience members might have attended Irakere’s U.S. debut at Carnegie Hall during the 1978 Newport Jazz Festival. Appearing unannounced on a program that featured jazz pianists Mary Lou Williams, McCoy Tyner and Bill Evans, Irakere stole that show.

Then, Mr. Valdés introduced New Yorkers to a bold and subversive music, both a response to Cuba’s post-revolution rejection of American jazz and rock and a seed for Cuban dance music now known as timbá. His tight band with a huge sound expressed a broad sweep of influences: from Afro-Cuban folkloric music to the legacy of Mr. Valdés’ father, Bebo (a towering pianist and composer in his own right); from the small-ensemble jazz of Art Blakey to the jazz-infused rock of Blood, Sweat & Tears.

Those who missed Mr. Valdés’s recent North American tour can pick up his new album “Tribute to Irakere (Live in Marciac)” (Jazz Village/Harmonia Mundi), recorded during an August concert at the Jazz in Marciac festival in France. It opens, as did the Town Hall concert, with “Juana 1600,” one of Irakere’s earliest hits. Here, Dreiser Durruthy Bombalé sings chants and plays rhythms on batá(three two-headed drums) derived from Afro-Cuban religious rituals, which lead naturally into a swirl of modern-jazz harmonies, gleaming trumpet-and-saxophone lines and the tug of dance grooves. This integration of the batá’s sound and function into Cuban popular music and jazz, not uncommon today, was one of Irakere’s several innovations.

With this project, Mr. Valdés neither takes a victory lap nor looks back. At 74, he remains a musician of restless and searching ambition. The best and longest tracks here—“Congadanza,” “Afro-Comanche” and “Yansá”—are recent compositions, first heard on Mr. Valdes’s last two albums with his band of the past decade, the Afro-Cuban Messengers. His current 10-piece group is less reconstituted Irakere than expanded Messengers, featuring three trumpets and two saxophones; the musicians are, for the most part, roughly half Mr. Valdés’s age. They stretch these song forms, investing them with the rhythmic intensity and dense layers of arrangement that were Irakere’s hallmark.

As a pianist, Mr. Valdés is a grand master with astounding technique. He slithers a song’s harmonies into extensions that use up the entire keyboard. He speeds up solos and arpeggios into fantastic blurs of sound. His stunning facility suggests one obvious influence, Art Tatum. In performance, he evokes James Brown in his prime: It’s entirely too much, yet his expertly synchronized tension and release leaves audiences craving more. Mostly, one thinks of Duke Ellington: Like Ellington, Mr. Valdés crafts complex yet memorable compositions that evolve over time, and his ensembles highlight individual personalities while exemplifying group cohesion.

For all his gifts as a pianist, Mr. Valdes’s primary instrument is his band. This one is filled with stunning players who can, and do, solo with authority, but whose focus is more communal: precisely executed horn riffs; cycles of rhythm that expand, contract and overlap; unexpectedly pungent harmonies; and, most stunningly, deft shifts between disparate styles.

Mr. Valdés calls this album a tribute to Irakere. It sounds more like testimony to the continuity and vitality of a vision that has always spanned borders and genres, conflated centuries, defied politics and, by now, having influenced generations, is bigger than any one band.

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