Irakere Featuring Chucho Valdés: Yemaya

Originally released on the Cuban state label Egrem in 1997, this session likely marks the Irakere swan song for Chucho Valdes. These days Chucho is more heavily invested in his piano work than in leading this stellar aggregation, a task he has relinquished to son and keyboardist Francisco (“Chuchito”). Based on evidence at the nightly jams at the Riviera at December’s Jazz Plaza festival in Havana, Irakere will be in good hands.

Given that the band smoothly survived the defections of Paquito D’Rivera, Arturo Sandoval, and now Chucho’s change in direction, coupled with the fact that the island boasts a wealth of musicians, Irakere will remain a potent force. Yemaya is up to the explosive legacy Irakere has established over nearly 30 years. Leading off with the title track, vocally essayed by Chucho’s dynamic sister, Mayra, this is yet another chapter bristling with ebullient energy and no shortage of fine musicianship. Though Yemaya is less horn-centered than its predecessors, saxmen Alfredo Thompson and Cesar Lopez stand out as the latest of Irakere’s featured soloists. Its the boss who is clearly in the spotlight here. Chucho’s keyboard dexterity and facility are magisterial, check out the extended feature “Santa Amalia.” Its just too bad he is saddled with a rather tinny electric keyboard, but alas that’s a condition that is all too frequent in Cuba as the embargoed island appears to have a shortage of good pianos. Couple Chucho’s rich and deep pianistics with the band’s keening horn section, tight ensemble passages, and uplifting rhythm section, and this edition very ably upholds the Irakere tradition.