Afro-Cuban rhythms and American jazz have been blood brothers since the '40s, when Cuban bandleaders such as Machito and Mario Bauza discovered bebop, and American jazzmen such as Dizzy Gillespie discovered the music of Cuba. The blending worked, almost immediately.
"You start to play some Cuban rhythm," says trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, one of the '90s' most talented exponents of Afro-Cuban jazz, "and then play a bebop line on top, and then you're cooking, already, because those are the main condiments of the soup of Latin jazz."
Although many American jazz players--from Gillespie and Charlie Parker to Cal Tjader and Herbie Mann--have made significant incorporation of Afro-Cuban rhythms in their music, few have pursued the combining of jazz and Afro-Cuban music with more persistence than pianist-composer-bandleader Jesus "Chucho" Valdes and the Cuban band Irakere. Together for 25 years, the ensemble's personnel has included, among many others, Sandoval and saxophonist Paquito D'Rivera--both since expatriated to the United States. But Valdes, a powerful pianist who energizes his rich-textured jazz chording with the irresistible rhythms of Cuba, has been there from the beginning, maintaining a quality of music that has consistently made Irakere one of the finest jazz bands, regardless of style, in the world.
Recorded in 1994 at the Afro-cubanismo Festival in Banff, Canada, this foot-tapping, body-moving collection is a showcase for Irakere's playing, for the band's capacity--typical of most Cuban bands--to create stirring, creative improvisations within the framework of music that is eminently danceable and listenable.
Irakere is in fine form, performing three Valdes originals, and featuring stirring solo work from trumpeter Juan Mungia and saxophonists Cesar Lopez and Carlos Averhoff. Valdes' piano--blindingly fast in some spots, lush and rhapsodic in others--is everywhere, propelling the music with enormous strength and power.
But this attractive album includes more than Irakere and Valdes. There is, for example, some extraordinary drumming from Cuban percussion legend Jose Luis Quintana Fuerte ("Changuito") on a boppish Valdes line written to the harmonies of "Stella by Starlight." Master flutist Richard Egues joins the ensemble on Valdes' "Cha Cha Cha"; a group of Canadian musicians--including bassist Don Thompson--collaborates with Irakere on the appropriately titled "Building Bridges"; and one track, "Rumba Tonada," is devoted to chanting and drumming by Regino Jimenez, Jose Pilar and Grupo Ilu Ana.
Best of all, the work of Valdes, Irakere and the other gifted players underscores the growing reach and diversity of jazz, of the music's capacity to both stimulate and integrate with a vast array of the world's many musics.
Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor) to four stars (excellent).