Chucho Valdés At 74 & Irakere At 40—Still Growing


Photo: Frank Stewart
Photo: Frank Stewart
“I was a privileged child because Havana was a center for both Cuban music and jazz when I was a boy,” Chucho Valdés told me several years ago, at his home in Havana’s Miramar section, where congas sit alongside the grand piano and photographs of Cuban musical heroes hang next to a 1998 proclamation of “Chucho Valdés Day” in San Francisco. “Cuban music and American jazz, that’s what we lived and breathed in my house. And to me they are different sons of the same mother: Africa.”
Valdés, who recently turned 74, was 4 when he sat at the piano with his own father, pianist Bebo Valdés, who was a central figure among the first generation of big-band mambo arrangers in Cuba. During his decadelong tenure as pianist for Havana’s famed Tropicana nightclub, Bebo led the island’s top players and worked closely with visiting American stars.
As was his father’s, Chucho’s embrace of Cuban music and American jazz is bold, without stylistic prejudice, and always marked by invention. Chucho may well have crafted his own towering legacy atop his inheritance from his father, but nothing could have prepared the world for Irakere, the band Chucho founded in 1973, in Havana, and which took the world by storm five years later.
Chucho has revived the spirit and format of Irakere, 40 years past its founding. I heard them recently at Manhattan’s Town Hall (set list below for notetakers), and was struck by how current the band sounds. That’s because, in the true spirit of Cuban music and American jazz, Chucho never sits still, always leans forward.
(You can find a video of the group at the Lugano Jazz Festival here.)
As I wrote in my Wall Street Journal review of Chucho’s new CD, “Tribute to Irakere (Live in Marciac)”:

When pianist Chucho Valdés presented “Irakere 40” at Manhattan’s Town Hall earlier this month, he rekindled the sound of a band with which he changed the course of Cuban music four decades ago. Older audience members might have attended Irakere’s U.S. debut at Carnegie Hall during the 1978 Newport Jazz Festival. Appearing unannounced on a program that featured jazz pianists Mary Lou Williams, McCoy Tyner and Bill Evans, Irakere stole that show.
Then, Mr. Valdés introduced New Yorkers to a bold and subversive music, both a response to Cuba’s post-revolution rejection of American jazz and rock and a seed for Cuban dance music now known as timbá. His tight band with a huge sound expressed a sweep of influences that ranged from Afro Cuban folkloric music to bebop, from Mr. Valdés’ father, Bebo (a towering Cuban pianist and composer in his own right) to Blood, Sweat & Tears.

and as I point out:

With this project, Mr. Valdés neither takes a victory lap nor looks back. At 74, he remains a musician of restless and searching ambition….
Mr. Valdés call this album a tribute to Irakere. It sounds more like testimony to the continuity and vitality of a vision that has always spanned borders and genres, conflated centuries, defied politics and, by now, having influenced generations, is bigger than any one band.

Chucho Valdes Irakere 40 at Town Hall
Nov. 10, 2015
set list:

Continue reading “Chucho Valdés At 74 & Irakere At 40—Still Growing”

Sonny Sharrock's Ask the Ages: One for the Ages Comes Back

Photo copyright 1992 Jack Vartoogian/ Front Row Photos
Photo copyright 1992 Jack Vartoogian/ Front Row Photos

The news of a reissue of Sonny Sharrock‘s 1991 album “Ask the Ages” made me feel nostalgic. I can only wonder how Sharrock’s searing sound will seem in a new “enhanced and re-mastered from the original,” as promised from M.O.D. Technologies, the label run by Bill Laswell and Giacomo Bruzzo. The press release tells me that “M.O.D. resumes and continues the legacy of Axiom, the timeless imprint established in 1989 by Bill Laswell with Chris Blackwell, founder of Island Records,” which first released this album, and that Laswell, who produced it, “first heard Sharrock at fourteen.”
I was much older than 14 in 1998, but much younger than I am now. I was editor-in-chief of Jazziz magazine then. For the September issue, in celebration of the magazine’s 15th anniversary, I planned all sorts of special coverage. There were competing essays depicting the period from 1983-1998 as either a jazz Dark Age or a Renaissance. For the review section, I had critics select albums released in 1983 or later and destined to be memorable well into the future.
Among the albums I chose was “Ask the Ages.” Below is what I wrote. I like to think I’d express it better today—and maybe I will, upon listening to this reissue. (Not sure I still stand by my criticism of Laswell’s mix. Still, I stand by my enthusiasm. Everyone should own this album. Save for a few ripples here and there—the power trio Harriet Tubman for instance—I haven’t heard much that followed the path Sharrock was blazing.
Anyway, here’s that old review (sadly, the magazine is not online): Continue reading “Sonny Sharrock's Ask the Ages: One for the Ages Comes Back”

Laugh, Don't Cry! It's Christmas With Harry Shearer, Judith Owen and Their Talented Friends

photo: Greg Shappell

Harry Shearer described his wife, Judith Owen, as “a Welsh woman prone to melancholia who could not stand the fact that, at Christmastime, Southern California was about 78 degrees and sunny.”
She confessed the truth in all that. “In a strange way, bad weather means Christmas to me.”
I learned that at last year’s New York edition of “Christmas Without Tears,” the annual holiday season pageant, a fundraiser for charity, that the couple hosts each year. There, Shearer, the humorist and actor—whose many credits include The Simpsons’ megalomaniacal Mr. Burns, Spinal Tap’s affably insecure bassist Derek Smalls, and former president Richard Nixon (who was, among other things, both megalomaniacal and affably insecure)—revealed his innate musicality. Owen, a magificently gifted singer, pianist and songwriter, flashed a biting wit that might well cast Harry as the straight man in the family.
The couple’s traveling Christmas show, now in its tenth year, began as a house party in Los Angeles, a way for Owen to “reinvent the joy and fun of Christmas” not long after losing her mother and moving to Southern California (with its oppressive lack of incelement weather). Continue reading “Laugh, Don't Cry! It's Christmas With Harry Shearer, Judith Owen and Their Talented Friends”

In William Parker's Words

photo by Peter Gannushkin

I first put William Parker on the cover of Jazziz magazine in 1999, when I was editor-in-chief. I’ve since written about Parker—who is best known as a bassist, but whose sincerity is nicely depicted in Jack Vartoogian’s photo, above, of Parker playing a double-reeded horn—in many contexts, including the Wall Street Journal and New York Times.
I returned to the pages of Jazziz for a long and, I think, meaty interview with Parker (you can find it here on pag 38; if you can’t access it, feel free to contact me for a file version).
Below are some excerpts, beginning with a section about the Vision Festival, which Parker helped found 20 years ago. Continue reading “In William Parker's Words”

Let's Build a Statue of Allen Toussaint (Yes We Can Can)

photo/ Glade Bilby II
photo/ Glade Bilby II

I was as stunned and saddened as anyone by the news of Allen Tousaint’s death at 77 on Nov. 10, while on tour in Spain.
I’ll write more about him soon. But right now, I want to draw attention to an interesting development, reported yesterday by Doug MacCash at

A Facebook page titled “Allen Toussaint Circle,” proposing that Lee Circle be renamed Toussaint Circle in honor of the legendary composer and pianist who died Tuesday (Nov. 10) has garnered social media attention.
On June 24, Mayor Mitch Landrieu proposed the removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate army, on the St. Charles Avenue traffic circle as a gesture of racial reconciliation in the aftermath of the June 17 massacre of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., by Dylann Roof, a militant white supremacist.
Since then, the city has buzzed with discussion of whether Confederate monuments should be removed. And, if so, what should replace them?
An online petition related to the “Allen Toussaint Circle” Facebook page, titled “Honor Allen Toussaint – Rename Lee Circle,” meant to formally propose replacing Lee’s image with Toussaint’s has gathered 3,943 supporters from around the globe as of Friday morning.
Aside from Toussaint’s gifts for melody and harmony, his handiness with a hook and his innate sense of funkiness, he had an ear for lyrics that captured truths and anticipated needs. He distilled the pain of romantic longing into “Lipstick traces/On a cigarette.” He penned “Yes We Can Can” nearly forty years before Obama hung his successful White House run on the same sentiment — though it’s rhythmically more astute as phrased by Toussaint.

In New Orleans, a city known for musical innovation, imponderable dualities and inscrutable personal style, Toussaint epitomized it all: He was a mild-mannered, soft-spoken creator of hits who drove a cream-colored 1974 Silver Shadow Rolls Royce, who could look elegantly complete in a suit jacket, silk tie, and a pair of white athletic socks and sandals.
The petition  to replace Robert E. Lee with Toussaint sounds about right.

Continue reading “Let's Build a Statue of Allen Toussaint (Yes We Can Can)”