11 Irakere & Chucho Valdés Songs You Must Hear
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On The Corner Masthead


January 6, 2018 | by Rebeca Mauleón

Irakere performing live, c. 1986

SFJAZZ Director of Education and pianist Rebeca Mauleón lists 11 of her top Chucho Valdés and Irakere recordings, in no particular order, ahead of the SFJAZZ Gala 2019 honoring Chucho Valdés on Jan. 31, with performances by Irakere 45 and an all-star lineup.

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"Bacalao con pan" (Grandes Momentos) - One of Irakere's 1970s dance hits, "Bacalao Con Pan" (literally translated as "cod fish with bread"), represents the obvious influence of iconic American groups such as Blood, Sweat and Tears, and featured late guitarist Carlos Emilio Morales in full-on "wah-wah" pedal mode. While the album credits the song to Raúl Valdés (Chucho Valdés; brother), it was, in fact, penned by Chucho. The juxtaposition of electric guitar, vintage Farfisa organ and sacred batá drums is precisely what has defined Irakere as one of the most genre-defying Cuban bands of all time.

"Anabis" (Felicidad) - While there are several renditions of this on different albums, my personal favorite is the live version, given I was sitting in the audience at Ronnie Scott's club in London when Irakere recorded it! The haunting intensity of Chucho's piano intro is matched by the frenetic tempo of the main theme, not to mention the crackling ensemble breaks that highlight the extraordinary precision of rhythm section members Miguel Angá Diaz (congas, who takes an amazing solo), Enrique Plá (drums), Oscar Valdés (timbales) and Carlos Del Puerto (bass). This was the second iteration of the Irakere band, encompassing most of the 1980s and into the early 90s.

"Contradanza" (Felicidad) - Another tune from the same live album, "Contradanza" is Chucho's homage to the 19th century nationalist genre that coalesced as an extension (or collision) of both European and African influences. After the synth-laden introduction, the remarkable horn section takes off, and highlights the extraordinary flute work of a then very young Orlando "Maraca" Valle, just fresh out of the School of the Arts in Havana.

"Misa Negra" (The Best of Irakere) - The studio version of this suite brought to light a more constrained, almost theatrical interpretation of Chucho's opus, but the live version is undoubtedly one of the most memorable performances Irakere has ever given. With the first iteration of the band - featuring legendary figures Paquito D'Rivera and Arturo Sandoval, among others - this tribute to the deep African roots of Cuban music melds the sacred and the secular, informed by jazz and splattered with funk and rock. It is, simply put, epic.

"Nanu" (New Conceptions) - Some of Chucho's most brilliant solo piano work wasn't necessarily limited to the few solo albums he recorded. This piece is mostly piano solo with the Maestro at his most lyrical and tender, evoking an exquisite and almost heart-wrenching honesty. An amalgam of Chopin, Lecuona, McCoy Tyner and Bill Evans, Chucho's mastery is clearly evident in this gorgeous piece.

"Mambo Influenciado" (Lucumi Piano Solo) - Contributing to a musical canon often referred to as "Latin Jazz" is Chucho's now standard minor blues piece, "Mambo Influenciado." Recorded in the 1960s with the Orquesta Cubana de Música Moderna (the Cuban Modern Music Orchestra) in the decade before Irakere's formation, this piece was originally conceived as a jazz tune influenced by the Cuban tinge. Chucho's solo piano recording on the Termidor label is by far the supreme version, but the tune is now part of Latin Jazz standard repertoire and is played by bands around the globe.

"Chucho's Steps" (Chucho's Steps) - Inspired by the Coltrane composition "Giant Steps," and also a challenge to deconstruct the jazz standard, Valdés deliberately sought out to reframe the typical jazz composition by creating an extended form with one continuous melodic line. "Chucho's Steps" is built as a 50-measure head with no bridge, and also manages to modulate through multiple keys in a seamless and fluid way. This recording marks Valdés' new venture into a more Blakey-inspired role with his newly formed Afro-Cuban Messengers ensemble, a smaller group of much younger musicians, many of whom grew up listening to and learning from Irakere. 

"Aguanile" (The Best of Irakere) - The first time I heard Irakere's live 1979 Newport Jazz recording, I immediately imagined what it must have been like for those innocent jazz fans to witness this as yet unknown ensemble of future heavyweights. If there is one song on the album that highlights how incredibly tight, funky and mind-boggling this band was, "Aguanile" is it! Featuring vocalist/percussionist Oscar Valdés and the blazing horn section, this piece highlight's the band's penchant for transforming sacred Yoruban chants, and is relentless in its danceability.

"Xiomara" (Live at Ronnie Scott's) - Cubans tend to love anything they can dance to, and as Irakere often discovered, their main obligation to their home crowd was to keep them happy! Combining funk, jazz, and Cuban rumba, "Xiomara" takes a folkloric concept to new heights and gives both listeners and dancers something to agree on. 

"El Duke" (Misa Negra) - Irakere's cover of Dave Brubeck's tune is a prime example of how informed Chucho Valdés has always been by the jazz canon, as well as his admiration for the titans of the music. He has an uncanny ability to embrace many musical elements and create one seamless expression that is distinctly his, while creating the perfect opportunity for his amazing musicians to shine, much like Duke Ellington did for his players.

"Bailando Así" (Live at Ronnie Scott's) - Unabashedly danceable, this tune is another example of how the groove can be the most important part of any song, no matter how simple. "Bailando Así" is, much like "Xiomara" (mentioned above), for the dancers!

— Rebeca Mauleón