Irakere 40 at SFJAZZ

Harry S. Pariser BY

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Irakere 40
San Francisco, California
October 30, 2015

"They were smoking." That was KPFA's Art Sato, host of "In Your Ear"—a weekly Saturday afternoon Latin Jazz, jazz and flamenco music program on KPFA in Berkeley, California—evaluating legendary Cuban band Irakere's then-ongoing performance at SFJAZZ in San Francisco.

Indeed they were! Presenting sizzling, searing music, leaping from a polyrhythmic frying pan, the band has melded a variety of musical forms ranging from Cuban popular dance music to Afro-Cuban folkloric music, funk, jazz, and classical for four decades now. Founded by Jesus "Chucho" Valdés, an outstanding pianist, along with the late musical virtuoso Armando de Sequeira Romeu, Irakere is among the most most famous of Cuba's musical performing acts (Los Van Van and Orquesta Aragón being two others). As a measure of just how deep the band's musical roots run, co-founder Sequiera Romeu's great uncle, Antonio Maria Romeu Marrero, was, in his time, the foremost composer of danzón —a musical form which has captivated generations of Cubans and Mexicans.

The longstanding cultural embargo waged by its nearby neighbor to the north has meant that the group has not had the exposure to audiences in the United States that they so demonstrably deserve. This unfortunate situation has started to shift in recent years as relations have improved, and the U.S. State Department has become more amenable to issuing visas. The ranks of Irakere's members have included such luminaries as Arturo Sandoval and Paquito D'Rivera, both of whom emigrated Stateside where they found both greater artistic freedom and fame.

Chucho Valdes, now 74, still leads the ensemble, and he put together this version of Irakere, branded "Irakere 40," in order to highlight the incredibly talented youthful members of his current band, The Jazz Messengers. Its current incarnation permits the band to continue its legacy as a laboratory for musical experimentation and fusion of musical forms. It continues to feature outstanding young musicians, such as stellar trumpeter Dreiser Durruthy Bombalé, who worked with Valdes on 2010's Chucho's Steps CD, invoked the Orishas. The band heated up as the groove accelerated. The battery of horns—three trumpets, tenor and alto sax—surged as Valdés rose from his piano bench to conduct. Clapping his hands, he spread his arms to bring the fiery tune to a rollicking climax.

Valdés then introduced "Tabü," exercising a vibrant, lyrical run across the stretch of 88s. Manuel Machado took the tune to the max with a brilliant flugelhorn solo, while Valdés played percussively. It featured heady rhythms from the ensemble's three percussionists.

Bassist Angel Gaston Joya Perellada strapped on his electric bass for a grooving version of "Estela va a estellar" ("Stella by Starlight"), boosted by shaven-headed Yaroldy Abreu Robles' dynamic congas. Next, the stage light focused on Valdés as he soloed lyrically on a blues before the ensemble returned.

"Yansá," a tune originally performed with Valdés' Jazz Messengers, was offered up in a new arrangement which featured a wonderful solo by Afro-donning trumpeter Sarduy, quotations from "Take Five," as well as more lyricism from Valdés on the piano with Robles chiming in on cowbell. The battery of horns brought the number to a crescendo.

"Lorena's Tango," from the live CD Tribute to Irakere: Live in Marciac (Jazz Village, 2015) followed, featuring heavy báta drumming by Durruthy. "Afro-Comanche," a tune dedicated to ill fated Comanches relocated to Cuba during the 1700s, and the elegant "Caridad Amaro," named after Valdés' grandmother, brought the set to a close. Valdés took a bow; the band danced off the stage only to return for "Los Simples Cosas." A standing ovation, cheers and a chant for "Irakere," brought them back once more for "Congadanza"—a composition celebrating the life of María Cervantes, daughter of the Cuban composer and pianist Ignacio Cervantes—before a heady two-hour set of music drew to a close.

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