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Chucho's Steps

World Village WVF 479051



1. Las dos Caras (Both Sides)
2. Danzón
3. Zawinul's Mambo
4. Begin to be Good
5. New Orleans
6. Yansá
7. Julián
8. Chucho's Steps.

Chucho Valdés - Piano
Juan Carlos Rojas Castro - Drums
Lázaro Rivero Alarcón - Bass, vocals
Yaroldy Abreu Robles - Percussion, vocals
Carlos Miyares Hernandez - Tenor sax (tracks 1-4, 6-8)
Reynaldo Melián Alvarez - Trumpet (tracks 1, 3, 4, 6-8)
Dreiser Durruthy Bombalé - Lead vocals, batá drums (track 6)
Baira Fermina Ramirez, Yemi Menocal - Vocals

Chucho Valdés is most famous as the leader of Irakere, the Cuban big band which knocked our socks off from the early seventies, especially as it included not only Chucho's virtuosic piano but also such hugely talented musicians as Arturo Sandoval and Paquito D'Rivera. Since then Valdés has often appeared leading a quartet, and this new CD finds him with a group which he describes as halfway between the quartet and Irakere. He wrote all the material himself and hecalls the band the Afro-Cuban Messengers - implying a salute to the Jazz Messengers. The title of this new album hints at a connection with John Coltrane's Giant Steps.

Irakere provided an object-lesson in how to fuse jazz effectively with Afro-Cuban rhythms, and this album continues that line, although the rhythm never dominates, supplied primarily by just one drummer and one percussionist. In fact the paramount sound is Chucho Valdés' piano. This is evident right from the start, with Chucho stating the complex melody of Las dos Caras in unison with the trumpet and tenor sax, and then keeping up a highly syncopated beat behind the trumpet solo. Trumpeter Alvarez and saxist Hernandez supply some excellent solos but the listener is continually drawn to Chucho's hypnotic piano. His astounding technique allows him to play virtuosic runs and arpeggios, and he often strides across bar-lines without ever losing the basic beat. Sometimes he seems to play two melodies simultaneously - one with each hand - as he does in Danzon.

Danzon begins with a slow, rhapsodic tenor-sax solo before it develops into the requisite rhythm, with Valdés hopping about the piano like a demented flea. Zawinul's Mambo takes Weather Report's Birdland (composed by Joe Zawinul) and transforms it into a rich and rare piece of Latin-Americana with an infectiously hustling rhythm. Chucho's piano solo teases us by moving to and fro over three chords before he dislocates the tempo (briefly edging into mischievous stride piano) and then settles into a funky groove that leads back into the melody, played by the double bass and followed by a stimulating drum solo from Juan Castro.

Begin to be Good appears to mix elements of Begin the Beguine with Oh, Lady Be Good, but in a subtle way that emerges as pleasingly melodic. New Orleans is subtitled "A tribute to the Marsalis family", and it begins in elaborate bebop mode before transforming into more traditional style and flowering into the two-beat sound of a New Orleans street band.

Yansa is more serious: even gloomy and slightly discordant, with vocals that reflect the darker side of Cuban mythology and beliefs. Julian, written for Valdés' youngest son, returns us to a bright, optimistic melody which provides the musicians with an opportunity for lyricism. Like John Coltrane's Giant Steps, Valdés' Chucho's Steps progresses through a maze of chords, presenting numerous problems for the improvising musicians but the tenorist, trumpeter and pianist surmount them all triumphantly.

The album's recording quality is first-class, although the literal translation of the Spanish sleeve-notes produces some remarkable English, such as "My impression is that this is something out of a stagnant situation". But perhaps this strangeness fits the CD better than one might expect. Jazz has been called "the sound of surprise" and, on this album, there is a surprise waiting round every corner.

Tony Augarde

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