Best of: Irakere
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The Best Of Irakere [Clean]
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The great Cuban band Irakere has been underrecognized only because the United States' trade embargo on Cuba kept the mainstream jazz audience unaware of their existence until 1977. Members of Cuba's reigning big band, the Orquesta Cubana de Mésica Moderna, formed Irakere in 1971. The new group's leaders were virtuosic pianist Chucho Valdés, trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, and saxophonist Paquito d'Rivera. After the '77 diplomatic thaw, the band played a U.S. tour and signed with Columbia records. The material here is from the Columbia period, the bulk of which was recorded live in New York in 1979. The band's ability to play complex jazz arrangements with salsa rhythms is a revelation. --John Swenson
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Irakere hasn't been killed by these changes. The group is still vital and touring consistently. But the 1970s group still kinds the musicians at their most creative and vital. This CD contains some studio cuts from the period, along with most of the band's live Columbia album. It is worth getting, just for the live cuts, which are phenomenal. However, the studio cuts have dated rather heavily. Irakere was, along with Los Van Van and many other groups, the foremost exponent of the Cuban son style, which mixed electronics, disco and funk grooves, with salsa, Afro-Cuban and jazz to create a seminal fusion style. While the salsa and Afro-Cuban elements are in no way dated, the disco element really is and probably detracts from some of the cuts on the album. Still, even with dated elements, there is a fire in the group that is undeniable.
The liner notes claim that the disc is made up of two separate live gigs with slightly different personnel. However, this is almost definitely a mistake, as Gira Gira, Claudia, Anunga Nunga and many other cuts are clearly studio creations. The studio work is uneven. Particularly difficult to listen to is Anunga Nunga, a blatantly Cubano-disco cut that is almost embarrassing now, 30 years later. The vocals sound like the worst Hispanic lounge lizard stereotype you could imagine. Though other vocal tracks in the studio fare a bit better, none of them escape the patina of age, and the listener who lived through the 70s and survived may find himself a bit disoriented, and perhaps wondering, "Did I ever really like this sound?" It is much the same as looking at old high school year book pictures with brushed velvet three piece suits or Farrah Fawcet hair styles and trying to remember why you thought that would be a cool look for you!
However, the live stuff more than redeems the album. Irakere was, and still is, an astounding live band. The arrangements are complex, multi-layered and often played at blinding speed. The band seems to be able to turn on a dime, moving from disco to Afro-Cuban chants with no difficulty at all. In Jorge Varona, Sandoval, D'Rivera and Carlos Averhof the band had one of the tightest horn sections around, with musicians who were able to execute complicated charts with the energy of solos, and who were each amazing improvisers. The rhythm section was even more dense, with Enrique Pla and Carlos Morales setting up a firm drum and bass foundation over which the guitar and three percussionists would weave dense polyphony. Dominating all the proceedings is the virtuoso piano and keyboards of Jesus "Chucho" Valdez, perhaps the most amazing pianist Latin America has ever produced. The cuts are spectacular, from Ilya, which begins as a disco funk number and ends in a vital Afro-Cuban chant, to the marvelous Adagio on a Theme from Mozart which features D'Rivera on an astounding saxophone solo, to the most impressive work the group ever recorded, the Misa Negra, which takes it's rhythms and general shape from the sacred music of Santeria and creates a work that borders on the ecstatic. This performance alone is worth the price of the CD.
I do have some gripes. First of all, almost the entire live CD is represented on this disc, so why they chose to leave out one cut, I'll never know. One more live cut and less of the disco studio stuff would have been a wonderful thing for this disc. Also, the liner notes leave a lot to be desired. The track information is demonstrably wrong. The studio cuts are listed as live cuts, and the live cuts are listed with a much smaller band than played on them. This is demonstrated on Ilya, on which Carlos Averhoff introduces the whole band and the line-up does not match the liner notes at all. The written notes too abound in mistakes and gushy prose, something that other releases in Columbia Jazz's Contemporary Masters series don't have to contend with. And the interspersing of the studio and live cuts is frustrating as well. But all that aside, I still have to warmly recommend the album for the live material, which is not available in any other way currently and is some of the best Afro-Cuban jazz that exists. The live cuts would merit 5 stars...or even six if I could go that high. However, subtract a star for the studio cuts and shoddy package material.
If you find you like the Irakere selections, try the band's newer albums too. Babalu Aye is wonderful, as are the numerous live recordings. The band looses Paquito and Arturo, but the energy, passion and drive of Valdez continue to ensure that they are going strong well into their third decade!
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