Chucho Valdés celebrates 40 years of his influential Cuban band Irakere at Santa Cruz show
Chucho Valdés wants to set the record straight. “I didn’t help create Irakere,” says the Cuban pianist and composer, referring to the seminal jazz ensemble that came together in Havana in 1973. “I did create Irakere.”
While in recent years he hasn’t been involved with the band he founded with drummer Armando de Sequeira Romeu, reed master Paquito D’Rivera and powerhouse trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, Valdés has been at the forefront of celebrating its 40th anniversary. He’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 Irakere’s innovations that it can be hard to understand the expansive nature of the band’s revolutionary sound. The approach didn’t come together all at once, but Valdés says that with his suite “Misa Negra” (“Black Mass”), Irakere perfected its protean synthesis of chants and rhythms drawn from sacred Afro-Cuban Lacumi ritual, advanced post-bop harmonies and jazz-rock fusion.
“At the beginning we made a lot of mistakes, but in the end we reached the place we wanted to reach,” Valdés says, speaking from Havana through an interpreter. “It was a very personal concept of what Cuban jazz should sound like.”
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 Irakere’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. D’Rivera defected to the U.S. in 1980, and Sandoval left Irakere to found his own band in 1981, leaving Valdés 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 Valdés 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, Valdés started releasing a series of ever more astonishing albums, starting with 1998’s Bele Bele En La Havana.
In many ways, he’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 Valdés, one of Havana’s most important bandleaders before the 1959 revolution. Chucho was still a teenager when he took over the piano chair in his father’s groundbreaking orchestra, a group that often accompanied visiting American jazz musicians. “So 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,” says Valdés, who now lives in Málaga in southern Spain.
Quickly gaining recognition as the most formidable pianist of his generation, Valdés 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, Valdés was writing extended compositions, paying particular attention to sacred Afro-Cuban chants and rhythms. In a twist of history, Valdés explains how Cuba’s extravagant rhythmic riches stem from Spain’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.
“They 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 doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world,” Valdés says. “And the Spaniards had the Arab and Moorish influence, too.”
More than his fearsome technical prowess, what makes Valdés 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, Valdés treats the piano like a finely calibrated drum, summoning the rhythmic and spiritual riches of Africa. While his influence has spread around the world, Valdés knows he’s still got a lot to teach.
“There are some aspects that other generations have not grasped,” Valdés says.
INFO: 7:30 p.m., Oct. 27, Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. $40/adv, $45/door. 427-2227.
CUBAN REVOLUTIONARY Chucho Valdés, founder of Irakere, celebrates the 40th anniversary of the groundbreaking band’s creation on Tuesday, Oct. 27 at the Rio.