Chucho ValdÃ©s celebrates 40 years of his influential Cuban band Irakere at Santa Cruz show
Chucho ValdÃ©s wants to set the record straight. â€œI didnâ€™t help create Irakere,â€ says the Cuban pianist and composer, referring to the seminal jazz ensemble that came together in Havana in 1973. â€œI did create Irakere.â€
While in recent years he hasnâ€™t been involved with the band he founded with drummer Armando de Sequeira Romeu, reed master Paquito Dâ€™Rivera and powerhouse trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, ValdÃ©s has been at the forefront of celebrating its 40th anniversary. Heâ€™s releasing a new album Tribute to Irakere (Live at Marciac) in conjunction with a U.S. tour with a blazing multi-generation band that will come to the Rio Theatre on Tuesday, followed by a four-night run at the SFJAZZ Center.
The contemporary jazz scene has absorbed so many of Irakereâ€™s innovations that it can be hard to understand the expansive nature of the bandâ€™s revolutionary sound. The approach didnâ€™t come together all at once, but ValdÃ©s says that with his suite â€œMisa Negraâ€ (â€œBlack Massâ€), Irakere perfected its protean synthesis of chants and rhythms drawn from sacred Afro-Cuban Lacumi ritual, advanced post-bop harmonies and jazz-rock fusion.
â€œAt the beginning we made a lot of mistakes, but in the end we reached the place we wanted to reach,â€ ValdÃ©s says, speaking from Havana through an interpreter. â€œIt was a very personal concept of what Cuban jazz should sound like.â€
While many of his fellow musicians embraced the revolutionary sound, the Cuban government felt that mixing musical styles from the U.S. with traditional Cuban forms amounted to fraternizing with the enemy, and the Communist cultural bureaucracy did what it could to minimize Irakereâ€™s overt American influences. The government backed off when the group quickly attained iconic status, but the career and political restrictions of Cuban life eventually took a toll on the band. Dâ€™Rivera defected to the U.S. in 1980, and Sandoval left Irakere to found his own band in 1981, leaving ValdÃ©s to recruit a new generation of players.
Cuban/U.S. cold-war relations mostly locked Irakere out of the U.S. for decades, which meant that ValdÃ©s was more revered than seen here until 1997, when trumpeter Roy Hargrove reintroduced him to American audiences while touring widely following the release of his Grammy-winning album Habana. Signed to Blue Note, ValdÃ©s started releasing a series of ever more astonishing albums, starting with 1998â€™s Bele Bele En La Havana.
In many ways, heâ€™s been fulfilling his destiny as a musical bridge. His father, who died in 2013 at the age of 94, was the legendary pianist Bebo ValdÃ©s, one of Havanaâ€™s most important bandleaders before the 1959 revolution. Chucho was still a teenager when he took over the piano chair in his fatherâ€™s groundbreaking orchestra, a group that often accompanied visiting American jazz musicians. â€œSo I learned a lot about jazz as a child, and a lot about African music because it was played all the time in my house,â€ says ValdÃ©s, who now lives in MÃ¡laga in southern Spain.
Quickly gaining recognition as the most formidable pianist of his generation, ValdÃ©s recorded two albums for RCA Victor at the age of 18. His reputation spread while working with the Elio Reve Orquesta in the mid-60s, and by the end of the decade, ValdÃ©s was writing extended compositions, paying particular attention to sacred Afro-Cuban chants and rhythms. In a twist of history, ValdÃ©s explains how Cubaâ€™s extravagant rhythmic riches stem from Spainâ€™s mistaken belief that the island contained hidden veins of gold, which led the empire to import a huge number of slaves from across Africa.
â€œThey came from Congo and Nigeria with their culture and rhythms, the Bantu and the Dahomey, so a rich cultural and rhythmic world accumulated, a culture that probably doesnâ€™t exist anywhere else in the world,â€ ValdÃ©s says. â€œAnd the Spaniards had the Arab and Moorish influence, too.â€
More than his fearsome technical prowess, what makes ValdÃ©s an epochal figure is the seamless way he embraces the musical heritage of the three continents. While completely capable of evoking jazz masters such as Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and McCoy Tyner, and fluently conversant with the European classical canon, ValdÃ©s treats the piano like a finely calibrated drum, summoning the rhythmic and spiritual riches of Africa. While his influence has spread around the world, ValdÃ©s knows heâ€™s still got a lot to teach.
â€œThere are some aspects that other generations have not grasped,â€ ValdÃ©s says.
INFO: 7:30 p.m., Oct. 27, Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. $40/adv, $45/door. 427-2227.
CUBAN REVOLUTIONARY Chucho ValdÃ©s, founder of Irakere, celebrates the 40th anniversary of the groundbreaking bandâ€™s creation on Tuesday, Oct. 27 at the Rio.