Back to Cuba, Through a Door I Hope Doesn't Slam Shut Again

Chucho Valdés (left) first played the Jazz Plaza Havana Festival in 1980, leading his legendary band, Irakere. He is the music director of this 32nd edition. Pianist Roberto Fonseca was just 15 at his Jazz Plaza Havana debut. He sis artistic director of the first edition of a sister event, Jazz Plaza Santiago.

Hard to believe I’m at JFK airport waiting to fly to Havana. Hard to believe I’m going back (haven’t been since 2010). Hard to believe I can fly direct, and for less than it costs to visit my folks in Jacksonville. Hard to believe that this sudden ease, and the renewal of cultural exchange that was missing during the Bush years may soon get shut down again by a brutal Fascist.

Fidel, of course, is gone. Trump will be president. Among the things these two men have in common: they rose to power surprisingly, and by making promises quickly abandoned; they mastered the dark arts of fearmongering and propaganda. Among the things they don’t share: One of them was exceedingly literate and recognized the meaning and value of culture.
Not sure I’ll bring back rum or cigars when I return from the 32nd annual Havana Jazz Plaza Festival, but I will come back to with stories to write. Stories about pianist Arturo O’Farrill, who travels back this time with the ashes of his father, composer/bandleader Chico O’Farrill, to repatriate to an abandoned homeland. About trumpeter Terence Blanchard, who makes his first trip to the island, with a band that includes pianist Fabian Almazan, who left Cuba at age 9 and hasn’t yet returned. About pianist Chucho Valdés, a towering presence among Cuban musicians and the longtime music director of this festival. And about other Cuban musicians, such as trumpeter Yasek Manzano, who we rarely get to hear in the U.S.
And about the long embrace between U.S. and Cuban musicians, and the issues of identity and politics that swirl around it.
Here’s some background—a piece I wrote for The Wall Street Journal (also pasted below), after Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro announced a path toward normalized relations.

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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:

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