Preview: Two Cuban piano masters together at Symphony Center

– By Don Macica –

It can be argued that Cuba has produced more innovative pianist/composers per capita than any other country on earth. A distinctly syncopated Cuban style emerged out of the blending of European classical music seasoned with African rhythms in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Perhaps the most famous composer of this era is the orchestra leader Ernesto Lecuona, who wrote the classic tune Siboney, among many others. By the 1940s jazz was flavoring the stew along with a more overt reference to rhythms of African origin, leading to the development of mambo. When the descarga scene, marked by lengthy improvisational jam sessions, emerged in the 1950s, pianists Peruchín and Bebo Valdés often were often leading the band. It’s a tradition that continues to this day in the person of young pianists like Alfredo Rodríguez and Harold López-Nussa.

In between those early days of mambo and the emergence of this new generation, however, there are two pianists who tower over the rest.

Bebo Valdés’ son Chucho emerged in the 1970s as a founding member of the groundbreaking Irakere, arguably one of the best and most influential bands to emerge from post-revolution Cuba.  The group, which also included trumpeter Arturo Sandoval and saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera, might very well be called Afro-Futurist today in the way that they combined deeply spiritual Afro-Cuban rhythms to forward thinking jazz and electric rock band energy. Chucho Valdés kept Irakere going after Sandoval and D’Rivera left Cuba for the United States, but he also grew as a solo artist and leader of several jazz ensembles, moving over to acoustic piano as his main instrument.

Chucho Valdés & Gonzalo Rubalcaba | Photo credit: Softglas

Meanwhile, another pianist from a musical family, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, was growing up listening to Valdés and Irakere. In the 1980s, he formed Grupo Proyecto, one of several young fusion bands inspired by the pioneering Irakere. By the end of the decade, Rubalcaba also turned to acoustic piano and was soon part of a trio that included American jazz giants Charlie Haden and Paul Motian (later Jack DeJonette). He made his international debut in 1991 with the album Discovery: Live in Montreaux. That album was put out by the legendary jazz label Blue Note, who also released Chucho Valdés’ U.S. debut Solo Piano the same year.

Both pianists went on to stellar jazz careers that nonetheless have the heartbeat of Cuba at their center, regardless of whether they are playing solo, small ensemble or big band dates. Both have proved adept at the two-piano format. Chucho’s 1998 duet album with his father Bebo, Juntos para Siempre, is a gorgeous masterpiece that stands as a testament to what can happen when you get two Cuban pianists in a room together.

On February 23, that room will be the stage at Symphony Center when Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Chucho Valdés, two brilliant pianists and composers with a historic relationship within the Cuban piano tradition, present Trance, a collaboration that explores the profound spiritual connection at the very heart of Cuban music. Expect an open-ended, respectful conversation between two friends whose mutual admiration for each other leads to careful  listening and thoughtful response, adding as needed until ultimately they almost speak as one.

And lest you think this will be some laid back recital, be assured that there will be plenty of sonic fireworks from these master musicians. After all, their hearts beat to the rhythm of Cuba.

Chucho Valdés & Gonzalo Rubalcaba: Trance
Friday, February 23 at Symphony Center, Chicago Tickets at cso.org.

Chucho Valdés: Irakere 40

file-page3

By Don Macica.

2015 marks the 40th anniversary of the founding of Cuba’s true supergroup, Irakere. The band led by pianist Chucho Valdés didn’t labor in isolation for long. In 1977, a jazz cruise left New Orleans carrying musicians including Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz and a young Ry Cooder (yes, the same Ry Cooder whose curiosity led to the rediscovery of the Buena Vista Social Club 20 years later) and dropped anchor in Havana. After catching an Irakere performance and being blown away by what they heard, they engaged in some jazz diplomacy back in the U.S. and soon Irakere was known around the world.

In addition to Valdés, the group also featured the young Paquito D’Rivera on sax and Arturo Sandoval on trumpet. Paquito defected to the United States in 1980 and Sandoval followed 10 years later, yet Chucho stayed the course and Irakere continued as a band until 2005, recording classic albums like Misa Negra along the way.

Chucho is now 74, but if that seems at all elderly to you, remember that his father, the legendary Bebo Valdés, lived to the age of 94 and was producing music until the end, providing the inspiration (and soundtrack) for the wonderful animated film Chico and Rita. Irakere may be no more, but Chucho is still going strong, as evidenced by his work as a solo artist and two recent recordings by his current group, the Afro-Cuban Messengers. Anniversaries being what they are, though, 2015 finds Chucho honoring the groundbreaking group he founded with the brand new album Tribute to Irakere –Live in Marciac (Jazz Village) and subsequent tour with the Afro-Cuban Messengers, which will bring him to Symphony Center on November 6.

file-page1

The members of the Afro-Cuban Messengers are young enough to count Irakere as influences on their musical development, so you have something of a dream matchup on the Tribute album: Young disciples led by the maestro himself.

Unlike their equally innovative contemporaries Los Van Van, Irakere were first and foremost a jazz ensemble, not a dance orchestra. Their first appearances outside of Cuba were at the Newport and Montreaux Jazz Festivals respectively. Nonetheless, Cuban audiences want to dance, and Irakere’s first big hit was the funk burner Bacalao con Pan, brimming with electric bass, blaring horns and rock guitar wedded to folkloric Cuban percussion and the incandescent virtuosity of Valdés, D’Rivera and Sandoval’s solos. Later on, as the sheer firepower of D’Rivera and Sandoval departed, Valdés reconceived the ensemble’s dynamic by writing stronger arrangements that emphasized the group sound, resulting in extended works like the four-part suite Misa Negra.

This approach to writing and arranging now carries over to the Afro-Cuban Messengers, the name of which is Chucho’s nod to legendary drummer Art Blakey’s long running Jazz Messengers. Both of the group’s previous albums, Chucho’s Steps and Border-Free, are unmistakably jazz albums. The former serves as Valdés’ tribute to American jazz while the latter digs deeper into Afro-Latin folklore, but each is clearly the work of a fluid and seasoned jazz ensemble.

On Tribute to Irakere, the Messengers grow from a sextet to a 10 piece orchestra, adding tenor and alto sax plus two additional trumpets, the better to approximate Irakere’s 11 member powerhouse lineup. The album contains a mere 6 selections, but two of them stretch over 17 minutes and none are shorter than 7. Instead of filling the album with old Irakere hits, 4 of the 6 tracks come from the previous Messenger albums, but now arranged to take advantage of Irekere’s trademark sound: A tight and punchy horn section, deeply spiritual Afro-Cuban chants, percussive grooves and powerful soloing, all performed with blow-the-roof-off intensity. There’s also one Irakere classic, Juana 1600, and what you might call a ‘new’ Irakere song as imagined by a younger generation called Afro-Funk, which sounds exactly as you think it would with a title like that, but better.

It’s this 10 member Afro-Cuban Messengers that will hit the Symphony Center stage November 6, and it can be safely assumed that roofs will again be blown. There is a chance that other Irakere classics will be played, as they were in Marciac. I, for one, relish the very idea of hearing Misa Negra live. Whatever comes, though, will be good enough for me.

Chucho Valdés, Irakere 40: Friday, November 6, 8pm at Symphony Center, Chicago. Tickets at cso.org

 

About the author: Don Macica is the founder of Home Base Arts Marketing Services and a contributing writer to several online publications, including Agúzate and Arte y Vida Chicago. He is the author of Border Radio, a blog about music, migration and cultural exchange.