London Jazz Festival 2008
With Chucho Valdes, one always knows what to expect: a flourishingly buoyant display of Latin jazz led from the piano stool of this old master. Tonight, a rare visit to London, was no exception. Opening with a scorching medley including Duke's "Satin Doll" and the effervescent "Caravan," he went on to quote Joe Zawinul's "Birdland" in mambo form and spotlight the talents of his two percussionistsJuan Carlos Castro Rojas (drum kit) and Yaroldi Abreu (congas)by allowing them to let loose in a long, spicy rhythmic feast with no real piano melody. That was just the first half. After the interval, Valdes brought out a four-piece horn section as well as his sister, the eccentric singer Mayra Caridad, for a couple of party numbers. The music took on a slightly rougher, more instinctive vibe, with all players given ample solo freedom. A brilliantly tight arrangement of Victor Young's "Stella by Starlight," with the head blasted out at breakneck speed, was typical of the sweltering big-band writing Valdes has developed through his noted group Irakere. The pianist clearly prides himself on well-drilled ensemble work and, although this set of compatriots may not have reached the dizzy heights (forgive the pun) of Paquito D'Rivera or Arturo Sandoval, they all had rich improvisational contributions to makeparticularly Alexander Abreu's blaring trumpet and the cameo appearance of German Velazco's sweet soprano sax. And if that wasn't enough, a solitary woman even began to dance in the aisles of the cavernous Barbican hall: a typically British scenario, surely a far cry from the rapturous reception this superb band would receive back in Cuba.
This was a fitting end to the festival, as two of the world's principal guitarists came together for an intrepid race to the pinnacle of distinction. Messrs. Lagrene and Taylor both worked with the great Stephane Grappelli, and, while continuing to honour the gypsy swing roots of Grappelli and Django Reinhardt, they have carved their own niches in the minds of music lovers. Taylor is par excellence in his incredible solo work, hypnotically fingerpicking his way through standards and originals alike; imagine Tommy Emmanuel high on jazz with a smooth electric tone and endless silky licks. Lagrene, although he has dabbled in fusion and post-bop, often favours the Manouche style of his Gypsy forefathers. His compact trio, featuring gentle bassist Diego Imbert and Hono Winterstein on rhythm guitar, offered the perfect opportunity for the Frenchman's dazzling chops to run free. When joined by Taylor for the last few songs of the night, the spectacle became any guitarist's dream ticket: the two had traded ideas in earlier duets, but went on to push each other further upwards with breathtaking interplay, supercharged by the immaculate backing of Winterstein and Imbert. A couple of swinging encores later, it was the end of everythinganother spectacular success for the London Jazz Festival.