In seven decades of playing music, the great Cuban jazz pianist Chucho Valdés has gone from being a revolutionary to an institution. Both qualities will be on display Saturday, when Valdés leads an ensemble of top musicians in a tribute to Irakere, the groundbreaking Cuban jazz fusion band he co-founded over 40 years ago, at the Fillmore Miami Beach.
“In this band right now there are four different generations of musicians,” Valdés, 74, says by phone from California, a stop on their U.S. tour. “From me the founder to this new generation.”
In 1973 he and the other restless young guns who founded Irakere were the new generation, aching to play something different. Valdés and his cohorts, who included trumpet player Arturo Sandoval and saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera, mixed popular and traditional Cuban music — son, conga, danzón — with classical and jazz, with driving rock and funk. Impeccably schooled and supremely talented, Irakere combined erudition and soul, ferocious technical chops and equally fierce grit on stage. They blew out of the box in Cuba with their first song, Bacalao con pan, a dance hit; then astounded the audience at a Newport Jazz Festival concert at Carnegie Hall in 1978, winning a Grammy the following year and turning the world’s ears toward Cuba for the first time since the island’s pre-Revolutionary musical golden age.
“Today they talk about before and after Irakere in Cuba,” Valdés says. “They were musicians with this incredible academic education. But we were also shaped by popular music, dance music, folkloric music — and jazz and symphonic music. Irakere was the first group that brought the danzón in a modern form to the dancing Cuban youth. What it did was develop the danzón, the conga and the son, and renewed them.”
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Cuban music historian Ned Sublette says Irakere opened the way for Cuban music to move forward, calling the group the template for the dense, multirhythmic, horn-driven sound of timba that would define Cuban dance music in the ’90s and is still popular.
“It was a new sound,” says Sublette. “This was a new kind of music that drew on Cuban son, traditional Cuban dance music, but it had the punch of electric instruments. It had a different kind of drive.” One that Sublette says veered in another direction from the salsa created in New York in the ’70s, with its roots in ’50s-era mambo.
“It was a very different take on how to extend Cuban music into the future,” Sublette says.
Irakere was overtly Afro-Cuban; it incorporated rumba, as well as the batá drums used in Santeria ceremonies and a plethora of other percussion. Adopting that character helped the group to bring jazz, hitherto seen as the music of the imperialist Northern enemy, back to Cuba.
“They found a way to recap jazz as Afro-Cuban music, which was politically palatable,” says Sublette. “In doing so they created something of great value, a new way of playing Afro-Cuban jazz.”
Now Irakere’s once radical music is part of the curriculum at the schools that produced the young musicians in Valdés’ current ensemble.
“They studied it as if it were a book, or a technical method to develop improvisation,” Valdés says. “This is music that inspired them. They take it as a reference, they feel like they’re part of it, and afterwards they do their own work.”
Irakere’s lineup changed over the years, sometimes for political reasons. D’Rivera defected in 1980 and Sandoval in 1990; both have enjoyed highly successful careers in the United States. Saxophonist Carlos Averhoff, another founding member, has lived in Miami since 1997. In the early ’90s, Valdés began focusing on his own playing and on smaller groups, leaving Irakere in 1997. The group disbanded in 2005. The idea for the current tribute tour came from a concert Valdés organized at the 2014 Jazz Festival in Barcelona.
Saturday’s concert will include a range of key Irakere songs, among them Bacalao con pan and Misa Negra (Black Mass), an early composition by Valdés; and Estela va a Estallar (Stella is going to Explode), a version of the jazz standard Stella by Starlight.
Irakere’s late ’70s success in the United States came during a brief softening of the long hostility between this country and Cuba. Now Valdés hopes that the more open relationship between the two countries, which has seen a rapidly growing number of musical collaborations, will be even more productive.
“No type of music should be isolated from the rest of the universe,” he says. “Fusion is taking nourishment from different cultures that are compatible with the one you have. So this is what really creates evolution and development.”
Valdés is quick to praise his former Irakere colleagues’ artistry and virtuosity. He also pays tribute to their predecessors, such as the 1930s and ’40s Orquesta Arcaño y Sus Maravillas, which boasted mambo creator Israel “Cachao” López on the double bass, for a similar combination of formal and instinctive power. “They were musicians who could play any kind of music,” he says.
And he is just as admiring of the players coming out of Cuba today. “All of them have a fantastic academic musical formation,” he says. “There are great talents in this new generation — there are geniuses there, too.”
Valdés may be uniquely able to appreciate the combined power of tradition and innovation. His father was pianist, composer and arranger Bebo Valdés, one of the towering figures of Cuban music in the ’50s. Bebo led the orchestra at the famed Tropicana nightclub, working with the likes of Beny Moré and Nat King Cole. As a child, he once played with pianist and composer Ernesto Lecuona and later played for Armando Maria Roméu, another pivotal bandleader. Bebo began teaching Chucho when he was 3 years old, who played in his father’s orchestra and absorbed music from the stream of stellar musicians who came through their home.
“Perhaps the greatest prize that I’ve received is to have had the father I had,” says Valdés. “I’m a simple follower. My father is a poet. I’m just a novelist.”
Bebo left Cuba in 1960 when Chucho was 18, and the two were estranged for several decades. They came together to play for the 2000 film Calle 54, the start of a rapprochement that led to the 2009 album Juntos para Siempre (Together Forever) for Calle 54 Records, co-founded by Miami’s Nat Chediak. The reunion with his father and his roots was one of the most powerful experiences of Valdés’ life.
“There was much more than music there — there was love, respect, tradition, the memory of the times we lived together,” he says. Five years ago he moved to Spain, where he still lives with his wife and young son, to be near his father (who passed away in 2013 at 94). “I was with him until the last moments of his life,” Valdés says. “Sharing the years we lost — but at the end we got them back.”
That his father enjoyed a career renaissance starting at age 78 may help account for Valdés laughingly calling himself “a baby.” Last month he performed with Chinese pianist Lang Lang and Cuba’s Philharmonic Orchestra for a Havana concert celebrating the city’s 500th anniversary. He wants to write a jazz symphony, like his father, George Gershwin and Duke Ellington. And he remains continually inspired by music.
“Every day shows me that I still have to learn so much — so, so, so much,” he says. “This is what inspires me. A teacher once told me that music is an eternal spiral. When you think you’ve arrived, that’s when you’re finished.”