The ongoing normalization of diplomatic relations with Cuba augurs an uptick in the presence of artists from the island making their way to the U.S., and it's an encouraging sign that the brilliant Cuban pianist Chucho Valdes is playing in town for the second time since last summer, a date that arrived after a long period when he only performed here once in nearly 16 years. Although the pianist has lived in Spain since 2010, the members of his current group, the Afro-Cuban Messengers, still live in Cuba. The group performs tonight at Symphony Center.
Last month the band released Tribute to Irakere: Live in Marciac (Jazz Village). Irakere is the pioneering Cuban jazz band that Valdes formed in 1973, a watershed that introduced Cuban music to lots of strains from around the globe, beyond just the jazz that was the group's raison d'être. Although Irakere started in 1973 as kind of a spin-off of Orquesta Cubana de Música Moderna, it wasn't until 1975 that the former emerged as a freestanding entity under that name—hence the live album and the current tour, which marks Irakere's 40th anniversary. Irakere, which introduced the world to heavy-duty players—including trumpeter Arturo Sandoval and reedist Paquito D'Rivera—ceased as a working band a decade ago. As you can see, this whole business is a little confusing. But Valdes clears the air in press materials for the new recording: "When I decided to do a tribute to that marvelous band, I also decided I didn't want to do it with the charter members but with players from the generations of musicians that grew up and learned from Irakere. I thought it would be more meaningful. It's a tribute from one generation to another." There's little question that decision brought serious fire to the proceedings.
The record mixes classic Irakere tunes with new originals Valdes has composed for the Afro-Cuban Messengers, a name that salutes Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. The ten-piece lineup is driven by a ferocious rhythm section with bassist Gastón Joya, drummer Rodney Barreto, and percussionists Yaroldy Abreu and Dreiser Durruthy Bombalé, to say nothing of Valdes's galvanic, high-octane playing. But while Afro-Cuban polyrhythms pulse and throb within the music like blood coursing through veins, and though Bombalé adds Santeria chants on a few tracks, the arrangements generally embrace classic hard bop, with dense, brassy lines opening for a string of solos in each piece. Below you can watch video of the band performing "Lorena's Tango," one of the newer tunes, which opens in the title style and features a typically extroverted solo by Valdes before morphing into an infectious cha-cha and then a swinging blues.