Jazz Batá 2 from Chucho Valdés arrives in stores tomorrow, 11/16

A couple of years back I had the opportunity to hear Cuban pianist, composer, and bandleader Chucho Valdés in concert. It was one of the more inspiring performances, filled with fire and finesse, that I have ever seen. The 77-year old legendary musician has reached a new creative peak in a long career of them, with the release of Jazz Batá 2, his first album for Mack Avenue Records.

Cuba is similar to New Orleans in many ways especially the role that musical families play in the culture of the island country. This year also marks the 100th birthday of Bebo Valdés, Chucho’s father. Interestingly enough Bebo was born the same year as New Orleans’ own piano genius Henry Roland Byrd, aka Professor Longhair.

The new album is a return of sorts for Valdés to the small-group concept of his 1972 Cuban album Jazz Batá. That album was originally considered experimental when it was first released. Now it has stood the test of time for a musician whose long career includes his work with the groundbreaking dance band Irakere.

The batá of the album’s title is considered a sacred drum in the Yoruba religion. It is an hourglass-shaped instrument that comes in various sizes and is used to invoke the orishas (spirits) in Yoruba culture.

Jazz Batá 2 was recorded in two and a half days and includes songs that directly evoke the rhythmic, spiritual side of the work of Valdés as well as lyrical, melodic cuts. Valdés said, “I applied to my solos the different rhythms of the batá. “The piano is of course a harmonic instrument, but it’s percussive too and you can play percussion with it.”

The three musicians who appear on Jazz Batá 2 with Valdés, percussionists Yaroldy Abreu Robles and Dreiser Durruthy Bombalé and double bassist Yelsy Heredia, have deep roots in Cuban musical culture as well as being classically trained. Abreu Robles is a drumming polymath playing congas, batá, bongo, and orchestral percussion and has played with Valdés for over twenty years. “He always knows what I’m going to want to do,” says Valdés.

The album opens with “Obatalá.” It is a long song, basically a mini-suite evoking Valdés’s santo (saint) in Santeria, which is the form of the Yoruba religion found in Cuba. It features vocals as well as a stunning bowed-bass solo and Valdés amazing touch on the piano.

Well-known jazz violinist Regina Carter is a special guest on one of my favorite cuts on the album. “Ochún” is named for the orisha who is known as the protector of Cuba. She represents feminine beauty and loves sweet music, so she’s saluted with the violin.

Valdés plays tribute to his father with “100 Años de Bebo (100 years of Bebo).” The song is an old one by Bebo that was literally rescued from oblivion by Chucho. “No one’s heard this tune,” he says, “I’m the only person who knows it. When I was a child, Bebo played it on the piano at home.”

Like many of our musicians here in New Orleans, Chucho Valdés only seems to get better with age. This stellar album will enthrall casual fans of Cuban music as well as those well versed in the long history of the country. Fans of the piano in any genre, from classical to jazz, will also relish Valdés’ intimate touch.

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