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Essential Albums

Chucho Valdés & Irakere: A 2-CD Retrospective

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While you might have to wait until “My Reverie” on Disc Two to experience the full virtuosity of leader and pianist Chucho Valdés, it’s worth the wait. This 2-retrospective disc set of music is primarily a celebration of the music of Irakere the iconic Cuban band that was formed by the maestro himself, Chucho Valdés in 1973. The band took its name from the word itself which meant “thick, dense jungle” in the Lucumi dialect of Yoruba. The music subsumed Jazz, Western European Classical music, together with music popular in the United States at the time, which was rock, funk of the day in the USA into its authentic Afro-Caribbean roots; its music evolving into a potent mix of Afro-Cuban music that later morphed – at least for a time – into a joyful, timba-playing dance band that also found a way to mix electronics into traditional Afro-Caribbean when few musicians even dared contemplate this.

The band really exploded onto the international music scene spawning superstars wherever it played, beginning with Mr Valdés himself, who came with a rich pedigree of being the son of the great Bebo Valdés, one of the greatest ever Afro-Cubans who led pioneering big bands in Cuba before first disappearing and then reappearing in Europe. The band also boasted such virtuoso musicians as clarinetist and alto saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera, trumpeter Arturo Sandoval both of whom who bewitched Dizzy Gillespie to such an extent that he lured then (fairly easily, it would appear) out of Cuba and into his own iconic United Nation Orchestra. Also making a name for themselves as musicians were saxophonist Carlos Averhoff and bassist Carlos Del Puerto. But there was also rhythmic momentum that drove the relentless energy of the band’s music, and this was provided by a battery of percussionists led by drummers Enrique Plá and Bernardo García.

All of these musicians and a legion of Irakere alumni are heard on this 2-disc set. It may be a compilation of music fueled by the vision and artistry of Chucho Valdés, but it is brought to life by a host of virtuoso musicians who not only bought into this vision, but were able to bring it to life in music that “rocks” with visceral energy and excitement. All of this echoes throughout the music. The repertoire has been chosen from various periods in the bands existence up to 2006 when the disc was released in Cuba. If there are perceived gaps, this may be put down to the fact that the disc is now dated. The band continues to exist and its personnel have changed several times since the original members folded things in after Paquito D’Rivera and Arturo Sandoval relocated to the United States. A brand new incarnation appeared during the 1990’s and was led by the piano-playing son of Chucho Valdés, Chuchito.

Sadly this package – though brimful with glorious music – will be a disappointment to the serious fan of Afro-Cuban music and Irakere’s legacy in particular. Despite a fine booklet essay that traces the band’s importance and its success there is no biographical and discographical information contained in the package. Things might change, however, as Sony has now taken over the Egrem catalogue and so hopefully more music that fuels the hunger among aficionados of modern Afro-Cuban music – including from the vaults of Irakere – will be released in the not-too-distant future. Until then there is ample time to enjoy this 2-Disc volume basking in the brilliance of its music which is a vivid storehouse not only of Chucho Valdés’ music, but also of performances – like that on “Estela va a Estallar” which features wonderful soloing from Paquito D’Rivera in addition to some exquisite ensemble playing from the rest of the brass and woodwinds sections; as well as the percussion colourists who also helped sculpt this powerful and beautiful music.

Track list – Disc One – 1: Misaluba; 2: Quindiambo; 3: Por Romper El Coco; 4: Dile A Catalina; 5: Que Se Sepa, Yo Soy De La Habana; 6: Los Caramelos; 7: Homenaje A Benny Moré; 8: Boliviana; 9: Por Culpa Del Guao; 10: Feliz Cumpleaños. Disc Two – 1: My Reverie; 2: Danza Ñañiga; 3: Misa Negra; 4: La Comparsa; 5: Los Ojos De Pepa; 6: La Vida Es Un Sueño; 7: Estela Va A Estallar; 8: Tierra En Trance; 9: A Chano Pozo; 10: San Francisco

Personnel (participating from the following musicians) – Chucho Valdés: piano, organ, keyboards and musical director; Carlos Emilio Morales: guitar; Jorge Varona: trumpet and valve trombone; Arturo Sandoval: trumpet; José Luis Cortés: flutes and vocals; Carlos Averhoff: soprano and tenor saxophone, bass clarinet and flute; Paquito D’Rivera: soprano, alto and baritone saxophones, clarinet and flute; Carlos Emilio Morales: alto saxophone; Carlos del Puerto: bass and tuba; Juan Formell: bass; Bernardo García: drums and percussion; Enrique Pla: drums; Carlos Barbón: percussion; Jorge Alfonso: tumba and percussion; Jorge Varona: percussion; Oscar Valdés: tumba, bongo (paila) and percussion; Carlos Barbón guiro, shekere and tambourine; David Calzado vocals; Pachito Alonso additional keyboards and backing vocals; various vocalists and other musicians not listed

Released – 2006
Label – Egrem (CD 0796)
Runtime – Disc One 58:53 Disc Two 1:12:57

Based in Milton, Ontario, Canada, Raul is a poet, musician and an accomplished critic whose profound analysis is reinforced by his deep understanding of music, technically as well as historically.

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Essential Albums

Azymuth: Telecommunications

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This album, Telecommunications, is one of the most iconic recordings by Azymuth, the ineffably funky Brasilian trio. When it was released – on the Milestone label in 1982 – it became a monumental hit, propelling the group, it went Gold and exploded into the Top 10 in the British Charts, soaring heavenward in popularity all over Europe too.

It’s not hard to understand the extraordinary popularity of Azymuth. First and foremost has to be the unmatched funkiness of all the musicians who made up the original trio: keyboards superstar, vocalist and percussionist José Roberto Bertrami, who sadly passed away on July 8th 1012, Ivan Mamão Conti, who just has to be considered one of the most funky drummers since Zigaboo Modeliste, [who practically invented funk drumming as one of the illustrious members of the iconic New Orleans group The Meters], and bassist Alex Malherios whose rumble and roar made for the glue [together with Mamão] that solidified the rhythmic edifice of the trio, while the soloist [particularly, Bertrami] launched himself on his mighty solo flights.

Azymuth: Telecommunications
Azymuth: Telecommunications

It may have been the syncopation of choro that carried over into Brasili’s most iconic urban music and dance forms – samba, a versatile rhythm that can assume many forms. Heated up, with a shouted call-and-response verse backed by literally thousands of samba-school drums on parade, it becomes samba de enredo [the mass Carnival music that is famous the world over]. But what happens when you take the vocals out of the musical equation, funk up the rhythm, add a rumbling electric bass guitar and jazz up the rippling Brasilian percussion?

That’s when you get the funkiest music that became the clarion call of Brasilian funk music ensembles, of which Azymuth was probably the most famous, plying its stock-in-trade at all the major jazz festivals – from the Americas to Europe – Monterey to Montreux and way beyond.  The music on this seminal album, Telecommunications is characteristic of Azymuth at its very best. The repertoire came at a time when this heavyweight trio had reached the apogee of the musical style that continues to be a niche. A style that it had carved out for itself, with an eclectic, jazzy mix of Brasilian rhythms upon which were overlaid dallying soli by Mr Bertrami and Mamão, together with the rumbling bass of Mr Malherios.

Azymuth Trio
Azymuth Trio

Telecommunications’ opener “Estreito de Taruma” features a filing solo by the great Brasilian guitarist Helio Delmirio. The warm sonority, clean technique and penchant for spare ornamentation in his playing made him a guitarist like none other to come out of the raging flood of guitarists that cascaded out of the ocean of Brasilian music. The music that Mr Delmirio sculpted, from the steel strings at his fingertips, made the musical notes fly off the paper. His lines floated askance, oblique to the not so predictable keyboard playing by Mr Bertrami.

Throughout the two sides of this vinyl –superbly remastered by George Horn, by the way– we find music that is a testament to the musicians’ [and composers’] boundless invention. This music is replete with a wide expressive range and technical challenges, not to mention the fact that once all of the musicians have had their say, a musical structure is constructed that defies logic, convention and other well-worn stylistic hooks. So monumental is the music’s cachet. Mr Bertrami’s “Last Summer in Rio” and the wistful finale – “The House I Lived In” [together with its “Prelude” – as a finale, no less] is typical of the brooding, tumbling groove that Azymuth created for itself – a sound so unique among [any] other musicians from the 1970’s onward, is yet to be imitated, copied or otherwise reproduced by Brasilian artists other than Azymuth.

YouTube Playlist

Tracks – Side A – 1: Estreito de Taruma; 2: What Price Samba [Quanta Vale um Samba]; 3: Country Road [Chão de Terra]; 4: May I Have This Dance? [Concede me Esto Dança?]. Side B – 1: Nothing Will Be As It Was [Nada Sera Como Antes]; 2: Last Summer in Rio; 3: The House I Lived In [A Casa em Que Vivi]; Prelude

Musicians – José Roberto Bertrami: organ [Side A 1, 4; Side B 1-3], keyboards [Side A 2, 4; Side B 1, 2], vocoder [Side A 3, 4], vocal [Side A 2] and percussion [Side A 1, 4; Side B 1]; Alex Malherios: electric bass [Side A 1, 4; Side B 2], fretless bass [Side A 2, 3; Side B 2]; bass guitar [Side A 4], and acoustic guitar [Side A 3]; Ivan Mamão Conti: drums [Side A 1, 2, 4; Side B 1, 2] and percussion [Side A 1, 3]; Special Guests – Helio Delmirio:  electric guitar [Aide A 1; Side B 2]; Aleuda: percussion [Side A 3, 4; Side B 1]; Dotô: repique [Side A 2]; Cidinho: percussion [Side B 2]

Released – 1982
Remastered and Released (vinyl) – 2022
Label – Milestone [1982]
Jazz Dispensary – [2022]
Runtime – Side A 19:21 Side B 21:43  

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