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March 2003

Mayra Caridad Valdes
La Diosa del Mar
Jazzheads Records

Terrific as it is to see Mayra Caridad Valdes attract the broad critical attention she's long deserved, it's hard not to be amused by the frequency with which she's described as a dynamic new force in world music. Dynamic? Unquestionably. New? Hardly.

Though La Diosa del Mar (translation: The Sea Goddess) is, indeed, the Cuban firecracker's first solo album, she's been singing professionally for at least half of her 46 years and boasts one of the most impressive pedigrees in Afro-Cuban jazz. She is the daughter of Bebo Valdes and the younger sister of Chucho Valdes, linking her directly to a multigenerational set of piano geniuses. Given the breadth of her experience and the depth of her musical blue-bloodedness, it is satisfying, though hardly surprising, to discover that La Diosa del Mar is such a soaring achievement. From the reverential authority of "Besame Mucho" to the escalating fever of her brother's "Yemay " and rhythmic majesty of the folklore anthem "Rezo Afrocubano," the disc ably demonstrates that this particular acorn hasn't fallen far from the mighty family tree.

Curiously, considering how often Valdes has toured and recorded with her brother, Chucho doesn't play on the album. Instead, she's matched step for powerful step by the equally prodigious Tony Perez. Valdes has often been likened to Ella Fitzgerald, a flattering, if perhaps limiting, comparison. True, she can scat up a storm and is, as evidenced on Chucho's "Mambo Influenciado" and Charlie Parker's "Billie's Bounce," a masterful improviser. But there's a heightened boldness to her; an unguarded, unapologetic abandon so distinct from the self-effacing timidity that helped define Ella's regality. Beloved throughout Europe, Asia and Latin America, and a particular favorite in Canada, where she's played to packed houses on two cross-country tours, Valdes has waited two decades for proper entree to U.S. audiences. La Diosa del Mar is just the ticket.

Originally published in March 2003
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