By Matt Micucci
Jesus Valdés Rodriguez is a Cuban pianist, bandleader, composer and arranger whose career spans over 50 years. He is better known as Cucho Valdés, and throughout his years as an active musician and performer, he is regarded as having changed to course of Cuban music.
In the early part of last month, Valdés presented Irakere 40 at New York’s Town Hall – a tour celebration of Irakere, the Cuban band that, with its bold fusion of Afro-Cuban ritual music, popular Afro-Cuban music styles, jazz and rock, marked a before and after in Latin jazz.
For this event, he rekindled the sound of a band which, older audience members might have been particularly familiar with, possibly having attended their U.S. debut at Carnegie Hall during the 1978 Newport Jazz Festival. That was when Chucho 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, which is now known as timbá.
Now, those who missed the pianist’s recent return to North America can pick up his new album Tribute to Irakere (Live in Maciac), released on Jazz Village/Harmonia Mundi. The album was recorded during an August concert and the Jazz in Marciac festival in France.
The album features Chucho’s current group, The Afro-Cuban Messengers. The young Messengers grew up in Cuba listening to the music of Irakere — something that became a defining element for this project.
Leading a ten-piece ensemble comprising the Messengers expanded with three trumpets and two saxophones, Valdés offers a vivid retrospective of his work the past four decades. It is also a wide angle view of the evolution of Afro-Cuban jazz as the program includes classics of Irakere´s repertoire such as Misa Negra, Estela Va A Estallar, Juana 1600, and Bacalao Con Pan, but also more recent compositions, originally performed with the Messengers, in new arrangements, such as Yansa, Abdel and Lorena’s Tango.
“In our first rehearsal of the old pieces with this band I cried,” says Chucho, who will be 74 on October 9. “When I decided to do a tribute to that marvelous band, I also decided I didn’t want to do it with the charter members but with players from the generations of musicians that grew up and learned from Irakere. I thought it would be more meaningful. It’s a tribute from one generation to another.”
Tribute to Irakere (Live in Marciac) was released on November 13.