09.10. – Happy Birthday !!! Mr. Valdés, the eminent Cuban pianist, bandleader and composer, carries himself with a sly balance of statesmanlike deliberation and youthful gusto.
One day last month, not long before his 74th birthday, he folded his big frame onto a couch in a Midtown hotel and spoke animatedly about the last 40 years of musical exchange between the United States and Cuba — a dialogue that has largely defined his career, and one that he in turn has helped define.
Conversing through an interpreter, Mr. Valdés had cause for reflection. He was gearing up for a major concert in Havana with the Cuban National Symphony Orchestra, the American conductor Marin Alsop and the classical pianist Lang Lang. And he was in New York to perform at a memorial for Bruce Lundvall, the record executive to whom, Mr. Valdés said, “I owe my career.”
It was Mr. Lundvall who signed Irakere, Mr. Valdés’s trailblazing band, to Columbia Records in the late 1970s. And it was Mr. Lundvall who brought Mr. Valdés to Blue Note as a solo artist, in the early ’90s. Both times, there were diplomatic and practical obstacles that the music, in its dazzling capaciousness, managed to transcend.
Mr. Valdés’s new album, “Tribute to Irakere (Live in Marciac)” (Jazz Village/Harmonia Mundi), returns to the legacy of his old band, which broke through at a time when those barriers felt a lot more intransigent. “There was a huge gulf,” Mr. Valdés said, “and the music was a very important bridge. It also went to prove that we musicians are above all the politics.”
Irakere was a force for cultural hybridism from the start, a clutch of virtuosos — like the multi-reedist Paquito D’Rivera, the trumpeter Arturo Sandoval and the guitarist Carlos Emilio Morales — engaging with multiple traditions. The band was a forerunner of timba, the still-popular Cuban dance music that blends rumba, guaguancó and other folkloric styles with elements of jazz, rock, funk and classical music. But at its heart was a more single-minded aim: “Bringing together jazz and the ancestral forms,” Mr. Valdés said, “in a coherent fashion, and with quality.”
That mission, though it sometimes took a back seat to the requirements of a dance band, made Irakere a touchstone for jazz musicians in Cuba. Some, like the drummer-composer Dafnis Prieto, first encountered the band on television, at a tender age. “I remember hearing and looking at so many different sounds and instruments,” Mr. Prieto recalled in an email. “The batá drums from our Afro-Cuban tradition plus the American drum set, the electric bass and the guitar, the singer, the horns. Everything sounded so unique and fresh.”
The pianist David Virelles, who like Mr. Prieto is a fixture on the scene in New York, said: “Everybody I knew that was trying to learn how to play jazz was influenced by someone in Irakere.” He added, “Post-Castro, they’re one of the most influential groups there ever was.”
Mr. Valdés has come to consider Irakere an academy through which generations of musicians have passed, drawing an earnest parallel with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. The project he calls Irakere 40, which had its premiere at the 2014 Barcelona Jazz Festival, is an expanded edition of his core band, the Afro-Cuban Messengers.
Featuring versatile players like the trumpeter Reinaldo Melián and the batá drummer and vocalist Dreiser Durruthy Bambolé, Irakere 40 — now on a North American tour that will reach Town Hall on Nov. 10 — plays a mix of retooled Irakere classics and newer compositions by Mr. Valdés. The band’s style reflects what he calls “the overall evolution of the rhythmic foundation in the 21st century.”
Mr. Valdés is second-generation Cuban piano royalty: His father, Bebo Valdés, was one of the leading musicians in Havana during the 1950s. At the Tropicana, where Bebo was house pianist, young Chucho saw some of his early jazz heroes: Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan. A prodigy, he began working in his teens, developing a dexterous, discursive, orchestral style.
By the early 1970s, he was also intently exploring a distinctly Afro-Cuban strain of jazz, building on ideas famously embodied by Chano Pozo, the Cuban percussionist, and Dizzy Gillespie, the bebop trumpeter. Mr. Valdés formed an early edition of Irakere with fellow members of an all-star large ensemble, the Orquesta Cubana de Música Moderna.
Irakere was its own entity by 1975. A few years later, Mr. Lundvall, tipped off by Gillespie and others, went to Havana to hear the band. He committed to signing it on the spot, and arranged for Irakere to appear as a surprise addition to a Newport Jazz Festival concert at Carnegie Hall.
The concert, in June 1978, featured the esteemed jazz pianists Mary Lou Williams, McCoy Tyner and Bill Evans. But as John S. Wilson noted in The New York Times, Irakere ran away with the show, “pouring out tumultuous rhythms, sudden eruptions of massive ensemble sound and dazzling high trumpet notes by Arturo Sandoval.” Irakere’s self-titled debut on Columbia, including material from the Carnegie concert, won a Grammy Award and turned the band into an international draw despite the restrictive policies of Cuba’s communist government.
Those pressures, which had led Bebo Valdés to flee Cuba in 1960, exerted a toll on others in Mr. Valdés’s close orbit. Mr. D’Rivera defected to the United States in 1980, seeking asylum at the American Embassy in Madrid during an Irakere tour. Mr. Sandoval left the band the following year, defecting in 1990, while on tour in Europe with Gillespie. (His decision later inspired the HBO film “For Love or Country: The Arturo Sandoval Story,” starring Andy Garcia.)
Mr. Valdés maintains a detached pragmatism on political subjects, in contrast to his former bandmates, who have been outspoken critics of Castro’s regime. Asked whether he’d considered a first-generation Irakere reunion, Mr. Valdés smiled. “That would be perhaps my dream,” he said. “It’s not easy any longer, when each one has struck out on his own, taking different paths.”
The World Music Institute, which is presenting Mr. Valdés in New York, has made one gesture toward reconciliation: After Irakere 40, the next concert in its Masters of Cuban Music series, on Dec. 2 at the 92nd Street Y, will feature Mr. Sandoval. (The series opens on Tuesday and Wednesday at the Beacon Theater, with two farewell concerts by the Buena Vista Social Club.)
In some ways it’s appropriate that Mr. Valdés would honor his former band by bulking up his current one; he’s an artist concerned with historical traditions, but he isn’t by nature a nostalgist. He marveled often in conversation at the new strains of creative music emerging in Cuba, and among young Cuban musicians in New York and beyond. And he was quick with his enthusiasm about the implications of a freer exchange between the United States and his homeland.
“I thought this would never happen,” he said. “And many like myself also thought the same thing. It’s wonderful to be able to see it. It’s just beginning. But it’s already wonderful.”