Chucho Valdés hit a career milestone in 1973 when he founded the now-iconic big band Irakere, catalyzing Cuba’s native jazz scene while simultaneously cementing his own global reputation as a pianist, bandleader and composer of the highest caliber. But Irakere’s explosive success stole the spotlight from an innovative album that Valdés had released a year earlier. Jazz Batá
(named for the inclusion of the sacred batá hand drum) applied the structure and harmony of modern jazz to the rhythmic framework of Cuban folkloric music, anticipating similar approaches by contemporary piano luminaries, including Vijay Iyer (Tirtha
, 2008) and David Virelles (Gnosis
, 2017). Now, after the passage of nearly half a century, Valdés has released an ambitious, more polished sequel. Jazz Batá 2
features a tight and tasteful quartet of virtuosi who share a deep technical and emotional grounding in the traditional music of Cuba’s Guantánamo region, from which they all hail. Yaroldy Abreu Robles and Dreiser Durruthy Bombalé, a pair of percussionist/vocalists who grew up playing together, have collaborated with Valdés for decades. Bassist Yelsy Heredia fluently anchors their spacious grooves, occasionally spinning off into searing and transcendent solos (particularly on “Obatalá” and “Son XXI”).
Valdés’ new compositions encompass a broad scope of styles. The bold, avant-garde disarray of his solos on “Luces” and “Obatalá” balance the romantic lyricism of tracks like “The Clown” and “Ochún,” a gospel/blues-inflected tune featuring the pristine playing of guest violinist Regina Carter. The record also benefits greatly from its use of modern recording technology, trading early-’70s studio buzz for an immersive clarity that viscerally captures the ensemble’s power and nuance. Above all, Jazz Batá 2
highlights the artistic maturation of a master pianist and demonstrates that, at 77, he is more creative than ever and has lost none of his signature flare.—Asher Wolf
Featured photo by Carol Friedman.