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Last night Irakere, the cutting-edge Havana based group which pioneered both the fusion of classical Cuban music and jazz and the melding of the culture's traditional instruments with electric ones, opened for a week's stint at Seattle's Jazz Alley. Absent their gifted pianist, leader and primary composer/arranger, "Chucho" Valdes and all but one of the original stellar members, the current incarnation of Irakere still managed to adequately excite and electrify those present. The set began with the young Geroldio simultaneously playing all three bata drums (quite a feat in itself), doing the traditional Santeria opening invocation to los guerreros, the Yoruba Orishas (deities) Eleggua, Yemaya, and Chango. He then moved over to the congas, and the whole band launched into Chucho's composition, "Juana 1600", an all out rumba groove. This is a signature tune for the band, producing Big-Bang eclat by using their characteristic juxtaposition of contrapuntal rhythms against a brilliant and percussive horn section. The effect is even further enhanced by the pulsating electric bass underneath, mind-frying lightning flashes of electric guitar on top, and wonderful Santera, Mayra Caridad Valdes, singing, dancing, and bewitching with chekere in the few remaining spaces. Irakere's horn section, consisting of two trumpets, tenor and alto saxophones always bears mention. It is the band's trademark to have highly complex and rhythmic horn arrangements. The horn section always has top-notch players, and by necessity executes these blazing-tempoed horn figures with surgical precision. The arrangements are such that the horns always cut through and against the rich, Cuban clave-backboned polyrhythms producing a "Gotcha, coming-and-going" sensation in the body. It is an experience not to be missed. Drummer Enrique Pla, penultimate remaining member of the original group, is a force to be reckoned with; he produces a groove that is a quintessential element in the uniqueness of Irakere's sound.
Irakere, now 22 years old, still continues to excite even this jaded writer's aging blood, and by the end of the set, people were boogeying betwixt and between the waitresses and tablesnot bad for an opening Tuesday night. Two of the more memorable tunes included another stick of Chucho dynamite, "San Francisco", and Irakere hit, "Cha-Cha-Cha."