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Cuban Beats; Jazz Treats

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A Reason to Exist: Music is life for Afro-Cuban piano master and Irakere leader Jesus "Chucho" Valdés.

Jesus Valdés and Afro-Cuban ensemble Irakere make rare appearance at New Orleans by the Bay

By Sam Prestianni

SINCE BIRTH, Cuban pianist Jesus "Chucho" Valdés has been surrounded by what he calls the "musical spirit" of his native land. He explains, "In Cuba, everywhere you go there is music. The blend of the African and Spanish cultures, the rhythms of son and guaguanco, are part of everyday life. Also, there are a lot of state-sponsored schools, and anybody who has some talent has a chance to get into the schools."

Prompted by his father, celebrated mambo bandleader Bebo Valdés, Valdés began classical studies at the Havana Conservatory in 1950 at the age of 9. He was already sold on the musical life, due in no small part to Dizzy Gillespie's Latin-jazz excursions, which had taken Cuba by storm a few years before. "Dizzy Gillespie's blend of Afro-American jazz with Latin rhythms was something very new at the time," says Valdés. "It was pure fire."

In 1963, Valdés teamed up with noted saxophonist Paquito D'Rivera, trumpeter Arturo Sandoval and a number of Cuba's other top musicians to take part in the government-initiated Cuban Modern Music Orchestra. Naturally, the pianist and his new bandmates, who dubbed themselves "Irakere" (the Yoruba word for "forest"), wanted to tap that Gillespie fire in their own performances. But the orchestra's stringent schedule--ranging from accompaniment of the state symphony to soundtrack work for the Cuban film industry--did not foster this kind of personal exploration.

The experience did provide an exemplary training ground for virtuosic development, however, and after seven years of sharpening their chops, Valdés, D'Rivera, Sandoval and others left to pursue the collective vision of Irakere. Over the past 25 years, Irakere has come to represent the forefront of Afro-Cuban jazz. Open to new directions that would filter down from the U.S., Irakere's music has always incorporated influences from many disciplines. As Valdés explains, "The fundamental part of Irakere is African and Spanish music, but also I add other elements like jazz, classical, rock and funk."

IN THE '70s, when Irakere first appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival and its self-titled Columbia Records debut won a Grammy--a singular feat for a Cuban band--the group cooked with burning electric guitars and propulsive, Santana-like grooves. Today, the band's dynamic arrangements maintain a distinctly Latin personality while reflecting a mature jazz stance.

Laden with references to bop classics such as "Salt Peanuts," and subject to balladic detours in the vein of latter-day McCoy Tyner, Irakere's music nonetheless continues to evoke a festive Caribbean spirit. The tunes take advantage of a full range of Latin rhythms and dance forms, from the slow and sultry bolero to the exuberant mambo.

The polyrhythmic vocal-cum-percussion sensuality of clave notably charges the atmosphere, and an ample measure of salsa's precursor, son, along with the impossible syncopation of real rumba, also find their way into the mix. Valdés stresses that the "ethereal ideas," rhythms and language of Nigeria's Yoruba religion also substantially inform his musical approach.

Valdés cites masters Oscar Peterson, McCoy Tyner and Bill Evans as his mentors: "I learned virtuosity from Peterson; the percussive style, importance of the fourth and lyricism from Tyner; and from Bill Evans, lyricism also." In the course of a typically jaw-dropping improvisation, Valdés darts from deep blues to Baroque, harpsichordlike passages to bombarding harmonic clusters with a strange sort of inner logic that even he cannot explain.

It all comes down to the magic of moment-to-moment improvisation. "I don't think about it," he tells me. "I don't program myself. I don't plan anything. It just happens as I go along, and I trust that the music will take me where I want to go." The leader adds, "The band improvises just as I do. They are free to do what they want."

With a vibrant momentum that relies equally on explosive solo flights, collective dialogue and the use of silence or space, Irakere's high level of group empathy insures a unified band sound. Like Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers or many a Miles Davis ensemble, the group also acts as a kind of nurturing center for fresh talents. Of recent Irakere inductees, Valdés lauds "out of this world" saxophonist Cesar Lopez and 20-year-old trumpeter Mario Hernandez, who "has a lot of future."

In a rare moment of "cultural exchange," which Valdés dubiously claims "has been going on for many, many years regardless of the political factors involved," the members of Irakere were recently granted visas to perform stateside as a full unit for the first time. Given Valdés' politics-free philosophy--"Music is my reason to exist"--Irakere's appearance at New Orleans by the Bay promise to be one of the transcultural highlights of the concert season.


Irakere plays Sunday (June 23) at Shoreline; see MetroGuide on page 50 for New Orleans by the Bay details. The group also appears June 21 at the Fillmore and June 25 at Yoshi's. (BASS)

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From the June 20-26, 1996 issue of Metro

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