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Cuban composers and instrumentalists are relentless in their quest to honor the past while projecting their art into the future. Pianist Rafael Zaldivar, who left his native Cuba to study in Montreal, offers a shining example of this philosophy on Consecration, his fourth release. The date’s 13 tracks cover myriad stylistic touchstones, each one a prism through which Zaldivar projects his personal spin on Cuba’s voluminous music traditions. Throughout, his keyboard improvisations largely avoid the well-established Cuban piano language, opting instead for introspective musings sparingly accented by bold chords. The results, often disarmingly minimalistic, are universally compelling.
The set opens with “A Rock con Leche” (Rock With Milk). The title is a sly commentary on the preponderance of stones found in bags of rice Cubans buy to make a favorite dessert. The arrangement begins with ethereal whistling and a mesmerizing chant. Then, Zaldivar’s keyboards spring into action with the ferocity of a marauding pack of jungle cats. His piano pumps out a rollicking vamp while he simultaneously serves up searing blasts of synth-style voicings that wouldn’t be out of place on a 1970s fusion date by Weldon Irvine. Folkloric, Africa-rooted works like “Arará” (named for a minority group of Afro-Cubans) are shaped by the cadence of batá drums and chanting in a West African dialect. Here, Zaldivar favors spare arrangements and a delicate touch, settling for an occasional sprinkling of notes or a mood-setting chord. The pianist offers a genuine surprise on an unexpected cover of “Unforgettable,” the 1950s-era hit by Nat “King” Cole, tenderly rendered as a bolero.
Zaldivar’s triumph is his sensitive re-envisioning of traditions he learned as a youth in his homeland. Consecration could serve as a soundtrack to a spiritual retreat in some distant rain forest. — Mark Holston