Friday, October 9, 2015

Irakere 40: The Re-imagining of an Iconic Cuban Ensemble

Pianist and Irakere founder, Chucho Valdés
Dionisio de Jesús Valdés Rodríguez, better known as Chucho Valdés, celebrated his 74th birthday earlier this month (October 9th), and the legendary Cuban piano giant is poised to blaze through the SFJAZZ Center later this month with his newly reformatted rendition of Irakere as the band celebrates more than four decades since their founding in 1973. Created during a time of significant political as well as artistic transition on the island, the band grew out of the Orquesta Cubana de Música Moderna (Cuban Modern Music Orchestra) established in 1967, with the intention of highlighting the wealth of Afro-Cuban folkloric traditions in an amalgam of jazz, classical and popular styles. 

Echoing the Blakey-inspired proving ground of young talent, Valdés' role as visionary bandleader and composer has long been reinforced by the stellar musicians he has cultivated - with many in his recent Afro Cuban Messengers line-up well more than half their leader's age. As the 40th anniversary of the groundbreaking and Grammy-winning Irakere ensemble drew near, Valdés was intent on reframing his touring band by adding a killer horn section to the already-dynamite Messengers quintet, no small task given the shoes that had been left to fill following the likes of sax great Paquito D'Rivera and trumpet virtuoso Arturo Sandoval. But the incubator of talent churned out by the Cuban National Art Schools would not disappoint, and following his 2014 touring schedule, Valdés got to work pulling out the old classic arrangements as well as beefed-up versions of newer works, and launched Irakere 40 to awestruck European audiences late last year. (Below is a video of the group's appearance at the Lugano Jazz Festival in Spain.)

1980 Grammy-winning album
Valdés himself is a one-man piano colossus, conjuring the depth of Cuban nationalism, the soul and swing of hard bop, and the legacy of the European classical canon, gloriously melded together with the richness of West African sacred and secular folk traditions of the Diaspora. He is truly a giant of Cuban piano, following the lineage of greats including his father, Bebo Valdés, as well as legendary pianist and composer Ernesto Lecuona. For those who were lucky enough to witness his most recent SFJAZZ appearance, Valdés was joined by two other virtuosi - Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Michel Camilo - as they payed homage to Lecuona's music in one unforgettable evening of solo, duet and trio piano performances at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco. Multiple standing ovations into the night, one couldn't help but notice that the school of Cuban piano - and Cuban music in general - was no longer a novelty among jazz or classical music aficionados; Cuban music was, and is, here to stay and be celebrated in the United States, and without question, Chucho Valdés is one of the reasons why. We encourage you to witness this living legend with his new band of young brothers at the SFJAZZ Center when Irakere 40 comes to town, Thurs-Sun October 29 - Nov 1. Visit for tickets and info. I will see you there!   --Rebeca

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