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Chucho Valdés and Irakere

Reviewed on this page:
Cuban Jazz Revolution - Chucho Valdés - Jazz Batá - Grupo Irakere - Piano 1 - The Golden Orpheus '76 - Live At Newport And Montreux - Recital En Teatro 23 Y 12 - Leo Brouwer/Irakere - From Havana With Love - Vol. III - Irakere 2 - Chékere Son - Cuba Libre - El Coco - Para Bailar Son - Live In Sweden - Vol. VI - Tema De Chaka - Calzada Del Cerro - Orquesta Sinfonica Nacional - Tierra En Trance - Bailando Así - Quince Minutos - Invitación - Misa Negra - The Legendary Irakere In London - Exuberancia - Felicidad - Live At Ronnie Scott's - Indestructible - ­Afrocubanismo Live! - Babalú Ayé - Yemayá - 30 Años - Chucho's Steps

Led by ace pianist Jesús "Chucho" Valdés, Irakere plays traditional Cuban rhythms and jazz with equal proficiency, throwing in pinches of everything from rock to disco to Mozart. Irakere has gone through innumerable horn and wind players - including world-famous soloists like Paquito D'Rivera, Arturo Sandoval and José Luis Cortés - since their first big hit, 1974's guitar-driven "Bacalao Con Pan" (though their rhythm section has remained admirably stable) and continued to perform all over the world through the 90s. (Since then, Valdés has focused on solo work.) For all the accolades the group and its members have received, I think Valdés's sense of humor has been overlooked: as serious as he takes his music, there's always a playful spirit at work, as heard in tunes like "Rucu Rucu A Santa Clara" or 1998's cover of "Feliz Cumpleaños."

When I started listening to the band in the early 90s it was nearly impossible to figure out their discography; now, thanks to resources like Spotify, Timba.com and Patrick Dalmace's excellent Chucho Valdés discography, it's much easier. Though I'm still unaware of the original sources of a few things like their live cover of "Summertime." (DBW)

In 1979, members included Jesús "Chucho" Valdés, piano; Enrique Plá, drums; Carlos Emilio Morales, guitar; Paquito D'Rivera and Carlos Averhoff, winds; Arturo Sandoval and Jorge Varona, trumpets; Carlos Del Puerto, bass; Oscar Valdés, Jorge Alfonso and Armando Cuervo, percussion. D'Rivera and Sandoval left 1980, replaced by Germán Velazco and Juan Munguía. José Luis Cortés joined, 1981. Cortés and Velazco left circa 1987 to form NG La Banda, replaced by Orlando "Maraca" Valle, keyboards and flute. New members by 1991 included Miguel Díaz and Moises Valdés, percussion; César Lopez and Javier Zalba, sax; Adalberto Lara, trumpet. By 1998 everyone had left apart from Valdés, Plá and Morales - new members were José Miguel, vocals and percussion; Jorge Luis Valdés Chicoy, guitar; Jorge Reyes, bass; Roman Filiu and Irving Michel Acao, sax; Basilio Márquez and Julio Padrón, trumpet; Adel González, congas; Maikel Ante, vocals.
Cuban Jazz Revolution (Chucho Valdés y Su Combo: rec. 1963-1966)
The first recordings of Valdés as a leader are collected here, fourteen from 1963 and four from 1966. Right from the get-go, he was inclined to mix and match musical styles, with electric guitar on the descarga "Pa' Gozar" and the dramatic solo piano opening to the otherwise straightforward guajira "Guantanamera." "Sonidos Siderales" opens and closes with spacey echo effects reminiscent of Sun Ra. At times, though, all the experimentation seems scattershot, without foundation (the circus music opening "Guasabeando Voy"), or simply trite (the three-chord guajira-rock "Guajisón"). And when Valdés sticks to conventional forms, the results are often, well, conventional ("Mercy's Cha Cha"). Only a couple of tracks are truly powerful (the full band jazz "Por La Libre"). Then again, I should go easy on him: Eddie Palmieri is about the only other bandleader who was exploring Latin jazz in this period, and his early records aren't so great either. The band features future Irakere members Paquito D'Rivera (clarinet and alto sax) and Carlos Emilio Morales (guitar), plus Julio Vento (flute), Alberto Giral (trombone), Kike Hernández (bass) and Emilio del Monte (drums). (DBW)

Chucho Valdés (Chucho Valdés: 1970)
A trio session with Plá and bass legend Orlando "Cachaito" Lopez; this has been re-released (together with half of Invitación) as Featuring Cachaito. Unlike the Cuban Revolution sessions, there's nothing forward-looking or experimental about the material here. Several tunes are fairly typical small combo jazz: A run through Bobby Hebb's "Sunny" sounds like it could be Ramsey Lewis; the improvised "Invento No. 4," with an explosive drum solo. It's more interesting to hear Valdés take on Cuban popular song, including three tunes by troubador César Portillo De La Luz ("Canción De Un Festival") - he performs jazz deconstruction of "El Manisero" and "Novia Mia" while remaining true to their spirit. The original material isn't as striking, though it does hint at his interest in classical forms ("Preludio No. 1"). Seek this out if you enjoy Chucho's solo work, not if you want to understand how Irakere came to be. This same year, Valdés premiered "Misa Negra" ("Black Mass," meaning African, not Satanic) in Poland with a quintet including D'Rivera, Oscar Valdés, Cachaito and Plá - this early rendition (available only on bootleg) doesn't hang together, but as the first incorporation of batá and other sacred percussion into Cuban popular music it's still a landmark, paving the way for Sintesis and a host of others. (DBW)

Jazz Batá (Chucho Valdés: 1972)
Chucho is joined by Carlos del Puerto (bass) and Oscar Valdés (congas) - both were soon to join Irakere. You won't hear any indication that they were about to unleash "Bacalao Con Pan" on an unsuspecting world - there's not a whiff of fusion - but it's a convincing demonstration of each player's jazz credentials. "Irakere" cleverly combines the 3/4 feel of John Coltrane's famous reinvention of "My Favorite Things" with the 6/8 percussion of santería. "Neurosis" is mostly sedate swing, but breaks into occasional trebly bursts recalling Thelonious Monk. Two unaccompanied tunes, "Laureen" and "Palia" are more bizarre: tender love songs, mostly, until Valdés breaks into two-handed runs and thundering trills. Meanwhile, "Son No. 2," despite the innocuous, almost academic name, is the wildest of the batch, with discordant banging from Valdés and even plucking the piano strings, unless my ears deceive me. (DBW)

Grupo Irakere (1974)
By 1974 Valdés had assembled a crack dance band that ranged easily into fusion and pop: Most of Irakere's core was on hand, though Sandoval had not yet joined and Bernardo García was on drums rather than Plá. The band's first hit was the uptempo fusion number "Bacalao Con Pan" (by Raúl Valdés), driven by wah-wah guitar and a vocal chant; "Taka Taka-Ta" is similar - from the chord progression up - and arguably better, thanks to a wild organ solo from Valdés. What's most striking to me is the sophisticated way the band worked with the unsophisticated recording equipment at their disposal: Ernesto Lecuona's "Danza De Los Ñañigos" is arranged with fuzz guitar opposite trumpet, sky-high wordless vocals from Ele Valdés, and echoey plucked bass under everything, and somehow emerges as an unbearably gorgeous pop song. "Quindiambo" confronts the same limitations with the sort of exuberant excess I adore: enough hooks to power five songs are condensed into one, including one of the best breaks I've ever heard. (DBW)

Piano 1 (Chucho Valdés: 1976)
I'd always known that the piano - polyphonic, percussive, equally adept at melody and harmony - was the original one-person band, but when I heard this record I felt it. Ten solo recordings (including "Palia," earlier essayed on Jazz Batá), and each one swings as if it had a quartet behind it. Many of the compositions are so well constructed ("Son No. 3"; "Son No. 6") it's surprising he's never recorded them since. Despite the titles, many have no clear connection to Cuban music: "Son No. 4" is basically a blues, and "Son No. 5" is the sort of ostinato, driving theme McCoy Tyner has often explored. And rousing as he can be, my favorite tune on the disc is the gentlest: "Canción Para Yousi." (DBW)

The Golden Orpheus '76 (Farah Maria/Los Irakeres: 1976)
Live in Bulgaria, with balladeer Farah Maria; I know nothing of her background but she applies the bombast-free vocal style of nueva trova to folkloric Cuban song. The first side is Irakere alone, including an early recording of the fiery "Juana 1600" and a run through "Quindiambo," plus the traditional "El Carretero" (sung by Miguel Ángel Peña) and even a version of "Yesterday" showcasing Sandoval. But Side Two is the fascinating one, as the band subtly works its fusion into a couple of slow numbers (Silvio Rodríguez's "Ojalá"; "Canción De Un Festival," which Valdés had recorded in 1970). There's also a nice duet version of "Danza De Los Ñañigos" before they build to the big finale (you guessed it: "Guantanamera"). Also this year, Irakere recorded two studio cuts which went unreleased until 2002: a full-band version of "Canción A Palia" (Sandoval's first recording with the band) and "Para Ti Llevo Más." (DBW)

Live At Newport and Montreux (1978)
The US embargo against Cuba was lifted briefly during the Carter Administration, and - without leaving Areito/EGREM - somehow Irakere wound up recording for Columbia as well. The first fruit of that collaboration was this live disc, which not only featured unreleased material but also does an excellent job of showing the group's range. There's sophisticated, but pulse-pounding, dance music: the mini-suite "Juana 1600"; "Aguanile Bonkó," a brilliant, high-energy blend of santería and funk. There's Latin jazz (Sandoval's "Iyá," where the horns get to show their stuff). There's a 17-minute performance of the multi-movement "Misa Negra," probably the single most important Valdés composition. Less successful is D'Rivera's jazz take on a Mozart clarinet "Adagio"... his improvisations sound forced, as if he hadn't really thought the whole concept through. Despite my quibbles, it's a fine introduction to the band; CBS later released a CD titled The Best Of Irakere with most of these tracks plus much of Irakere 2. (DBW)

Recital En Teatro 23 Y 12 (1978)
A terrific live disc consisting largely of new material; by now, the blend of Afro-Cuban and European elements is smoother, more organic: On "La Comparsa," a driving funk riff provides the basis for a wild, almost free-jazz Sandoval solo. "Aguanile Bonkó" grows from santería origins to a bewilderingly complex Latin jazz arrangement. "Los Ojos De Pepa" features a yummy electric piano solo from Valdés, though the main theme isn't particularly interesting - throughout, he and Morales are both better heard than on most live recordings from the period. There's also an extended spin through "Quindiambo," a fine version of "Iyá," and the concert favorite "Por Romper El Coco" (sometimes known simply as "El Coco"). Re-released by EGREM (inaccurately) as Vol. IV. (DBW)

Leo Brouwer/Irakere (Leo Brouwer/Irakere: 1978)
The second EGREM disc of the year - also drawn from a live performance - eschews the band's party anthems in favor of highbrow fare: Cuban classical guitar virtuoso Leo Brouwer arranged and performed on four of the album's six tunes. There's a quiet version of Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer" with just Brouwer and Valdés alternating statements of the melody, only livened up with brief spurts of Dixieland horns. There are takes on three classical pieces: Rodrigo's "Concierto De Aranjuez," Heitor Villalobos's "Preludio No. 3," and the Mozart "Adagio" - more fully realized here than on the previous rendition. As with Newport and Montreux, the "Misa Negra" suite is best of all, with a tremendous instrumental and emotional sweep. Confusingly re-released by EGREM as Vol. II. (DBW)

From Havana With Love (rec. 1978, rel. 1998)
Another live set, this time in Belgrade, with four long cuts. "Misa Negra" and "Iyá" (mistitled "Ella") are well known; Tania Castellanos's "En Nosotros" was soon be recorded by the group. "Despues Medianoche" (not the Clapton song) is basically an opportunity for the horns to solo, and they're in fine form. Though the set's not revelatory, it is unusually well recorded: the percussion section in particular is more crisp and clear than I've heard them on any other 70s recording. A couple of stray points I wanted to mention somewhere: While most of the instrumentalists come across better on the barn-burners, del Puerto is best heard on the quieter jazz pieces, as on the uptempo stuff usually sticks to vamps and chord roots. And as many important advances as Irakere made, it's worth noting that, at least in this period, they tend to stick to a fairly standard son format where the first half of the tune states the melody and refrain, and then the montuno section leads to a repeating vocal chant - the difference being that you get a couple of instrumental solos where in typical son you'd hear the singer improvise a soneo. (DBW)

Irakere Vol. III (1978)
More of the swinging fusion of the first album, with a sequel to "Bacalao Con Pan" ("Moja El Pan") and the robust, fascinating, electric guitar-enhanced mini-suite "Juana 1600." A couple of tunes are closer to standard Cuban dance music: "Camagüey" and the traditional "Xiomara Mayoral - Xiomara" sound much like what Los Van Van was playing in this period. D'Rivera gets to show off his chops on the jazz instrumentals "En Nosotros" and "Iyá," while "38 1/2," with a squealing guitar lead, an enjoyably unburnished vocal, and a singalong vocal chant, sounds like Nuyorican salsa at its most experimental. (Some pressings of the album contain "Chékere-son" - based on Charlie Parker's "Billie's Bounce" - instead of "Camagüey.") (DBW)

Irakere 2 (1979)
Recorded at CBS Studios in New York. Most of the selections are jazz-oriented ("Claudia," showcasing the leader and del Puerto), and often not too different from US fusion of the period ("Gira Gira"). Produced by Bert DeCoteaux, and he may not be responsible for the disco excesses like "Baile Mi Ritmo" (with a guitar lick borrowed from "You Should Be Dancin'") or the break in "Añunga Añunga," but I don't see anyone else stepping up to take the blame. Shortly after these recordings, the band appeared at Havana Jam, and three performances appear on the two albums documenting the event: "Contradanza" and "Mil Ciento De Junedad" are superb. (DBW)

Chékere Son (1979)
A studio album recorded in Havana that saw delayed release in the US and Japan, with three songs previously cut for Areito (title track, longer but less exciting than previously) and three new ones ("La Semilla"). I have to think it was originally intended for CBS/Columbia, but was an early casualty of the Reagan Revolution. Either way, the band doubles down on Irakere 2's ill-advised disco direction: comparing this incarnation of "La Comparsa" to the Recital version demonstrates the distressing results. Even the less bastardized tracks are rather silly ("Cha Cha Cha") - if you're going to skip any of the original Irakere discs, make it this one. (DBW)

Cuba Libre (1980)
Recorded in Japan, and the whole thing was composed, arranged and produced by Chikara Ueda. Genre-wise, it's right up the band's alley - Cuban rhythms and melodies with jazz harmony and improvisation - but he makes the classic fusion mistake, burying the distinctive elements of each style so that the result is neither here nor there ("Sea Mail"). Irakere's own arrangements might take a classical piece to Minton's or make psychedelia danceable (or vice versa), but you can always tell what they're trying to do; Ueda, by contrast, smooths the emotion out of the bolero "Que Pasa?" and ruins the uptempo "Encuentro" with silly disco drumming. It's the difference between getting your chocolate in my peanut butter, and blending the two so thoroughly you can't tell what the heck you're eating any more. The compositions themselves are intriguing (the title suite), and if Ueda had just left Irakere the sheet music and quietly withdrawn, the results would have been worth hearing. By now D'Rivera had defected, and was promptly replaced by Germán Velazco. (DBW)

El Coco (1980)
Recorded during the same Tokyo sessions, but with a completely different feel, and rather than trying to be all things to all people, they provide something for everybody. The title track is the sort of good-time singalong you'd expect from Ritmo Oriental; "Ese Atrevimiento" is also relatively traditional though the shifting arrangement points the way to NG La Banda's innovations. "Zanaith" (with new arrival Velazco wailing on soprano sax) and "Las Hijas De Anaco" are two Valdés jazz meditations, and "Molinaria" (re-recorded on Vol. VI) is a roast of Beethoven. As a result, though it's not the best set of tunes, it's probably the best one-disc display of the band's reach this side of Newport And Montreux (DBW)

En Vivo (rel. 1990)
Well, sort of... in the sense that the musicians were alive when the tracks were recorded. But it's just the same hits you've already heard, deceptively packaged as concert recordings to get through a "gray market" loophole. I'm listing this only to minimize confusion. (DBW)

Live In Sweden (1981)
A real live album, featuring both favorites ("Aguanile Bonkó") and unfamiliar tunes (the rarely recorded "Irakere") Like From Havana, the sound quality is quite good ("Tres Días"), and naturally the performances are too, including the best version of "Juana 1600" I've heard so far. While there are plenty of excellent, easier-to-find recordings of "Iyá" (for example) out there, if you pick this up you won't regret it. I believe Sandoval left to form his own combo shortly afterwards. (DBW)

Para Bailar Son (1981)
The new star soloist was Jose Luís Cortés, the flautist who had just come from Los Van Van and would himself leave to form NG La Banda. Once again the jazz is soft-pedaled in favor of traditional - albeit riotous - dance rhythms: they even record the Arsenio Rodríguez chestnut "Dile A Catalina." Valdés lays low this time around; he only composed one song, "Tres Días," and doesn't do much soloing. Cortés' one song is enjoyable ("No Quiero Confusión"), and aside from a ten-minute bolero (a new version of "Ese Atrevimiento") nothing is dull, but this isn't the group at its best. (DBW)

Irakere Vol. VI (1982)
An assortment, like El Coco... Classical music is represented by a pallid take on Debussy's "My Reverie" and another shot at Beethoven ("Variaciones Sobre La Opera 'La Molinara'"). Then there's and two band compositions: "Siete Tazas De Café" (in the same midtempo jazz vein as "Las Hijas De Anaco") and the Van Vanesque, good-time "Que Se Sepa, Yo Soy De La Habana." Cortés adds witty solos to several numbers; on the downside, Valdés apparently flipped for a cheesy synthesizer around this time, and its thin, wan tone pervades several cuts (Gregorio Battle's "Los Caramelos"). Trumpeter Juan Munguía had joined the band by this point, though I don't know if he appears on the disc. (DBW)

Tema De Chaka (Chucho Valdés: 1982)
You'd think the band was busy enough on its own, but Valdés had more he wanted to say. More precisely, he wanted to tackle some of the same material in a smaller setting, as the songs - a mild cover of "Rabo De Nube" excepted - were recorded by Irakere either before or after this session. The leader is backed by Plá, Morales, Velazco, del Puerto and Alfonso, in a small combo jazz format that's occasionally fiery ("Triton"). As a result, the tunes that were mellower to start with aren't particularly different ("Zanaith," with Velazco revisiting his soprano solo), while the snappy title track is so unlike the bloated full-band version that it's unrecognizable. Well realized if a bit underwhelming; the weirdest moment is the jarring fadeout of "Claudia" at the ten-minute mark. (DBW)

Calzada Del Cerro (1983)
In a no-nonsense dance mode, mostly, though the opening "12 y 23" is a synth experiment reminiscent of Los Van Van's "Eso Que Anda," and Valdés falls back on two more Arsenio covers (the powerhouse "De Una Manera Espantosa" and "La Vida Es Un Sueño"). I got this on a twofer with Bailando Así, a must-buy; on its own this disc is great for fans but not the best introduction to Irakere. (DBW)

Orquesta Sinfonica Nacional (1983)
Two side-long tunes: "Tema De Chaka," recorded with symphony orchestra, and the jazz suite "Homenaje a Charlie Mingus." Ambitious, but a mess, as both sides are packed with half-written themes that go nowhere, interspersed with overlong solos (Averhoff and Valdés, surprisingly, are the main offenders). "Tema De Chaka" sounds like an overture to a lousy Hollywood film score, with lots of fluttering but no evident direction. The Mingus homage comes across a bit better, as at least del Puerto's humongous bass solo is interesting. (DBW)

Bailando Así (1985)
No classical tropes or self-conscious fusion; every track is rooted in Cuban tradition, hard-hitting and memorable ("Homenaje A Beny"). Cortés's "Rucu Rucu A Santa Clara" was a big hit, the title track is irresistable, "Boliviana" is a slow tuneful bolero, and "Por Culpa Del Güao" is an artfully arranged, tempo-shifting merengue. You won't get as good a sense of the group's influence as you would from their earlier records, but for intelligent dance music it's hard to beat. (DBW)

Tierra En Trance (1985)
Pure Latin jazz this time out, and elegantly constructed: Valdés showcases his band, both collectively and individually, on a set of quality tunes that run the emotional gamut. Each tune has one or two featured soloists: Cortés on the epic dance track "Estela Va A Estallar" (adapted from the standard "Stella By Starlight"); Morales reels off long strings of single notes on "Palia." On "Las Margaritas," Velazco plays probably the best soprano sax solo I've ever heard, and then in the coda plays the second-best. The descarga "A Chano Pozo" is mostly a group effort, though the percussionists get to shine as well. And the title track is best of all, building from a del Puerto concierto to a series of breathtaking piano solos alternating with furious brass arrangements. At this point, José Miguel Crego was added as third trumpet. (DBW)

Quince Minutos (1986)
The band is back in a salsa bag on this album, their eleventh. The disc includes two examples of the rucu rucu rhythm Valdés (or was it Cortés?) was then enamored of - it's cheesy, but undeniably fun ("Ruta 43," "Santiaguera"). Cortés also tries on Mexican traditional music for size ("Mejicanita"), which adds variety if nothing else. The title track, basically a riff on the "Stand By Me" chords, was originally recorded way back in 1979. (DBW)

Invitación (Chucho Valdés: 1986)
Side One is a multi-part solo piano suite, and while Valdés is fearsomely talented as a composer and performer, none of that really comes across here. The themes are often either monotonous or familiar ("Evocación No. 2" strongly recalls "Nature Boy"), and his playing stays in low gear throughout. Side Two is a suite also, though it's titled as one piece (title cut, co-credited to 19th Century composer Ignacio Cervantés). Unlike Side One, it features the jazz quintet from Tema De Chaka, but the bigger difference-maker is the electronics: Valdés toys with synth and electric piano as well as acoustic, and a recurring electrofunk theme features Plá on what sounds like Synsonics drums while del Puerto plays a primitive ascending line. At the very end Morales deals some serious funk-rock guitar, and each time Valdés retreats to solo piano it's a breath of fresh air, but the rest is just a mess. (DBW)

Misa Negra (1986)
Perhaps because the band was sounding so good, or because he had access to digital recording in a German studio, Valdés made a new recording of the title track. But to my ear it's less compelling: the dazzling horn charts (by Cortés, I'm assuming) sound showy, unbefitting the solemnity of the occasion. "Concierto Para Metales" is similar: a string of flashy charts that never quite connect. Then, on a cover of Dave Brubeck's "The Duke" the group nails a 50s big band sound so adeptly that you might as well not be listening to Irakere at all. So the highlight, by default, is the enjoyable but unremarkable "Samba Para Enrique." (DBW)

Lucumí: Solo Piano (Chucho Valdés: 1986)
Valdés on piano, playing mostly new material ("Dembo") apart from "Mambo Influenciado," but I don't find this anywhere near as compelling as other solo efforts (Piano 1, for example). "Adiva" is subtle and gorgeous; on the rest of the tracks I don't know what Valdés is going for, though from the title I'm assuming the project has something to do with santería. Just to pick one example, "Osun" is seven minutes of runs up and down the keyboard - slower then faster; quieter then louder - with no evident focus, mood, structure or impact. (DBW)

The Legendary Irakere In London (1987)
I believe this live set at Ronnie Scott's was the last Irakere recording date to feature Cortés. At this point the band sounds almost nothing like Grupo Irakere sounded but almost exactly the way NG La Banda would sound: No audible guitar - let alone fuzzed-out wah-wah - and no traditional tunes. Instead, there are lots of tightly arranged brass passages ("Stella Va A Estallar"), blistering dance anthems ("Bailando Así"; "Lo Que Va A Pasar") and jazz ("Las Margaritas"). I love both approaches so I'm not exactly complaining, but it's a shocking transition if you're not prepared for it. No surprises on the set list, except that Velasco gets two soprano sax features: he's remarkable all over again on "Las Margaritas," but comes off a bit sappy on "Johana." (DBW)

Solamente Con Amor (Averhoff: 1987)
Only a few Irakere members appear (including Muniguía), but since it was Averoff's only album recorded in Cuba as a leader, I'm listing it here. Cortés produced and wrote several tracks, and the band includes future NG bassist Feliciano Arango and jazz piano sensation Gonzalo Rubalcaba. I've only heard two of the tunes - "Isy" (featuring Anabel López) and "Inesperado Son Rock" - and they're disappointing attempts at jazz-funk, with Averhoff hard to hear amid synthesized drums and incoherent riffing, (DBW)

Exuberancia (1988)
Another live date at Ronnie Scott's, and a good value by length (a ten-minute "Samba Para Enrique"), at a minimum. Cortés had been promptly replaced by another flute virtuoso, Orlando "Maraca" Valle ("El Reeuncuentro"), and the band shifted focus to traditional rhythms ("Xiomara"). In fact, apart from a couple of solo fests like the epic "Chang&oeacute;" they sound like Rumbavana as much as a jazz-fusion group ("Guantanamera"). They're solid as ever (the funky workout "Bown Music"), though they have so many more influential and distinctive albums there's no reason to prioritize acquiring this one. (DBW)

Straight Ahead (Arturo Sandoval/Chucho Valdés: 1988)
Recorded in London, with a native rhythm section (Ron Matthewson, bass; Martin Drew, drums), the two leaders take on jazz standards ("Blue Monk") and Valdés tunes ("Mambo Influenciado"). Personally I must be missing something, as I find Sandoval's stratospheric, high-speed runs bombastic and showy; I don't feel like he's anywhere near the heart of, say, "Claudia." And since the rhythm section is faceless, you're left listening for Chucho, who's deft as ever but doesn't seem any more inspired than usual ("Blues 88" - generic title, generic tune). (DBW)

Toda Cuba Baila Con... (rec. 1973-1988)
A compilation of tracks from the first ten Areito albums; not essential now that the original albums are available, but still a worthy pickup, with a generous running time. (DBW)

Homenage A Benny Moré (1989)
Not particularly heavy on Moré compositions, just another compilation. It covers the band's history from "Bacalao Con Pan" through to "Santiaguera," though it's very dance-heavy... you'd think whoever put this together would have found room for a little of their jazz side. (DBW)

Felicidad (1989)
Back in Ronnie Scott's Club in London, with six long tunes ("Stella, Pete, Ronnie" is 17 minutes long) that sound at least half-improvised. The good news is that Valdés' piano playing is as good as ever, and much easier to hear in the more laid-back setting. This period of the band's development is quite well documented so you don't need this, but if you have any interest in the band you'll want to hear them at their most contemplative and least danceable. (DBW)

In 1990, the band backed Silvio Rodríguez on a wonderful double live album, En Chile, performing one new piece, "Concierto Andino."

Solo Piano (Chucho Valdés: 1991)
An odd title, as bass and percussion appear on part of this album. Once again, recorded at Ronnie Scott's. (DBW)

Live At Ronnie Scott's (1991)
Roughly the fifth CD recorded at the London club, and it's in the same jazz vein as Felicidad but more sprightly: "Claudia" is one of only two ballads, and even that builds to a trumpet-led climax. The set list includes very old and very net material: There's a bang-up version of "Neurosis" - last heard all the way back in 1972 - with spectacular soloing from the piano player. On the other hand, there are a few songs I'd not heard of before: "Flute Notes" showcases Valle (including a virtuosic but overlong a flautella section), while "Mr. Bruce" is basically a jam (which is English for "descarga"). (I feel like I should know the funky saxophone feature "Mirando Arriba" but can't place it.) (DBW)

Live At Icarai Beach (1992)
A New Year's Eve show in Brazil, featuring "Lo Que Va A Pasar" (aka "El Volcán Del Caribe"). (DBW)

Pianissimo (Chucho Valdés: 1994)
Solo piano, including mostly songs he'd tackled before: "Rabo De Nube," "La Comparsa," "El Manisero." (DBW)

Indestructible (1994)
By 1994, timba - NG La Banda's blend of traditional rhythms with forward-looking jazz and funk styles - had become hugely influential in Havana, and Irakere appears to have jumped on the bandwagon. Though the band had been playing fusion long before NG was formed, this record unmistakably incorporates NG's distinctive brass arrangements and synth work. When Mayra Caridad Valdés appears to sing boleros - "Serenata En Batanga" and the title track - it's remarkably like NG's work with Malena Burke. Imitative as it is, this is still fun, with some dynamite grooves ("La Peleona," "Pare Cochero"), Chucho's usual fine piano work, and impeccable support from the rest of the band. (DBW)

¡Afrocubanismo Live! (1994)
Live in Banff, Canada; I think these were Averhoff and Munguía's last recordings with the band, but they're overshadowed by a parade of guests: Changuito plays percussion on half the tracks; Richard Egües adds extensive flute soloing on a rather twee version of "Cha Cha Cha." Valdés and the band aren't even present on "Rumba Tonada" - on the other hand, Irakere is undiluted on a fantastic, high-energy "Neurosis." Perhaps because of the guests, though more likely because of the traditional direction Valdés was heading, there are no guitars, synths, or any other rock/pop/timba elements: just Afro-Cuban rhythms and jazz horns. And the band is phenomenal in that mode, so if you're, say, an Eddie Palmieri fan, you'll be delighted by these renditions of "Xiomara" and "Building Bridges" (which prominently features Don Thompson on vibes and Bill McBirnie on flute). And whoever you are, expect to be blown away by the electrifying opener "Anabis." (DBW)

En Vivo (Iván Lins, Chucho Valdés y Irakere: 1996)
Apart from "La Explosión," all the tunes are by Lins. (DBW)

Boleros Inigualables (1996)
Recorded in Brazil. (DBW)

Desafíos (Chucho Valdés and Omara Portuando: 1997)
Portuando, an original member of the vocal group Cuarteto d'Aida, was brought back into prominence by Ry Cooder's Buena Vista Social Club recordings. (DBW)

Babalú Ayé (1998)
A disappointing rehash of old tunes in new timba-influenced arrangements: a guitar-heavy remake of "La Comparsa"; decent but unremarkable takes on "Por Romper El Coco" and "Tres Días." Nearly the only new material is the marathon title track, with Lazaro Ros and his backup singers chanting piously but with no trace of the musicality Sintesis brought to the same format. As always, the band's professionalism ("Solo Te Echaron Un Medio") and sense of humor ("Feliz Cumpleaños") are present, but that's about it. (DBW)

Yemayá (1998)
It's hard to believe this came from the same band and same epoch as Babalú Ayé: The title track is orisha-oriented timba like the preceding album, but it's about forty times better than anything on that disc, with hip vocal harmonies and unstoppable momentum. The rest of the album, though, is pure instrumental Latin jazz (the first studio version of "Mr. Bruce"): "La Explosión" is powerful, while "Son Montuno" has a retro-boogaloo vibe. The centerpiece is "Santa Amalia," a multi-movement sacred piece along the lines of "Misa Negra," and it's wildly successful, attention-grabbing through its thirteen minute running time, marrying soaring, spiritual brass to carnal percussion, and vice versa. Right after this release, Valdés stopped touring with Irakere and focused on his solo work. (DBW)

Bele Bele En La Habana (Chucho Valdés: 1998)
Valdés backed with bass and percussion. (DBW)

Briyumba Palo Congo (Chucho Valdés: 1999)

Live At The Village Vanguard (Chucho Valdés: 2000)
Accompanied by bass and percussion. (DBW)

Solo: Live In New York (Chucho Valdés: 2001)
Includes versions of "Besame Mucho" and "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" in addition to such expected fare as "Tres Lindas Cubanas." (DBW)

Canciones Inéditas (Chucho Valdés: 2002)

Fantásia Cubana (Chucho Valdés: 2002)
Solo piano, including a number of classical pieces: Chopin's "Prelude In E Minor," Debussy's "Reverie And Arabesque," Ravel's "Pavane For A Dead Princess." (DBW)

New Conceptions (Chucho Valdés: 2003)
Piano plus rhythm section, though guest horn players crop up on a few tunes. (DBW)

30 Años (2004)
I'd assumed this was a compilation, but it's all new recordings. The songs cover a broad scope, as you might imagine: 70s ("100 Años De Juventud") and 80s ("Estrella Va A Estellar"); danceable fusion ("Juana 1600") and jazzy meditations ("Nothing Personal"). There's more of Morales on guitar than we'd heard in ages ("Bacalao Con Pan"); Velazco also returned for this album, and contributes his usual soprano stylings to "Zanaith." Impeccably arranged, performed and recorded, but it's lacking in the raw power the group has reveled in at every stage of its career - even the ordinarily rousing tunes ("Changó") suffer from a decided lack of oomph. (DBW)

Cancionero Cubano (Chucho Valdés: 2005)
Solo piano again. (DBW)

Canto A Dios (Chucho Valdés: 2008)

Junto Para Siempre (Bebo y Chucho Valdés: 2008)
Chucho and his father Bebo, each on piano. (DBW)

Chucho's Steps (Chucho Valdés & The Afro-Cuban Messengers: 2010)
The Afro-Cuban Messengers are Lázaro Rivero, bass; Juan Carlos Rojas, drums; and Yaroldy Abreu, congas; supplemented by Reynaldo Melián (trumpet) and Carlos Miyares (tenor sax), and they're a hardy crew (witness the righteous, near-funk pocket on "Both Sides Now"). Most impressive of all, though, is the leader: after nearly fifty years of leading bands, you might expect him to be worn down or at least mellowed out, but he's in complete command, with the full range of the piano's dynamics at his disposal ("Zawinul's Mambo"). (On the foreboding opening to "Yansa," he even strums the piano strings.) All the compositions are his as well, and more keepers (the thundering "New Orleans," with the simultaneous horn solos characteristic of jazz's birthplace) than otherwise (the lukewarm "Begin To Be Good"). The same year, the band performed about half of this album, plus "Misa Negra" and "Los Caminos," at the Jazz àe; Vienne festival - I watched it on YouTube and recommend you do the same.

Omara & Chucho (Omara Portuondo y Chucho Valdés: 2011)
Wynton Marsalis guests on "Esta Tarde Va Llover." (DBW)

Border-Free (Chucho Valdés & The Afro-Cuban Messengers: 2013)
I often write that people like Ellington and McCartney should avoid grandiose statements because their greatness is in short songs, but the opposite is true of Valdés these days: This disc contains several standard-length tunes (all by the leader except Margarita Lecuona's "Tabú"), and they're tired Latin fusion ("Bebo," one of three tracks featuring Branford Marsalis). On the other hand, the sweeping epics are magnificent: "Afro-Comanche" - recalling "Misa Negra" in its unaccompanied opening and batá section - is both moving and exciting, as you'd hope from a combination of Native American and Afro-Cuban motifs. The romp "Abdel" is based on a simple theme, but it's tricked out with neoclassical riffs and rapid-fire solo sections, capped by unusually free playing from Marsalis. Imagine if Valdés saved up a few more like that and put out an album with four or five major works and no fluff. (DBW)

Continua bailando así

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