One of a series of extraordinary re-issues out on the Malanga Music imprint in 2007, this set from Cuban jazz piano maestro Chucho Valdes may well be the standout. Recorded in Havana in 1972 and 1982, this glimpse into the brilliant pianist at different eras and in differing contexts stands as a piece of vital Cuban jazz. Opening with "Irakere," a song that pointed to the group that Valdes would co-found with Arturo Sandoval and Paquito D’Rivera the following year, Valdes is simply brilliant. Aided and admirably supported by bassist Carlos del Puerto and Oscar Valdes on congas (both players would become what Valdes called "the spiritual column" of Irakere) Valdes plays in a vortex of creativity that is matched by his phenomenal chops.
The first five of the 10 performances presented here were recorded in ’72 on an album entitled "Jazz Bata." All are extraordinary. He is percussive on "Son No. 2" and harmonic while bordering on outside on the brilliant "Neurosis." The solo piano on both "Laureen" and "Palia" are lush and emotive, at times reminding of Bill Evans, though perhaps more exploratory and adventurous.
The second set of recordings, from 1982, reflect the post-Irakere Valdes who had realized his dream of leading an adventurous and critically acclaimed large ensemble. This quintet date was originally released as "Tema de Chaka." The title piece from these sessions features the fiery tenor of German Velazco and Valdes’ explosive chill-generating pianistics. All are underlined by a busy rhythm section that threatens to run away with the tune. "Rabo de Nube" is a showcase for Velazco’s gorgeous flute and Carlos Emilio Morales’ equally emotive guitar, though it is clearly the pianist’s, as well, given the long breathtaking piano solo that moves it.
Following "Zanaith," another workout for saxophone with a decidedly contemporary and electric feel, the fleet-fingered Valdes offers an ascending-chorus bit of genius on "Son Para Leyanis" that ebbs and flows while affixing the listener’s ear steadily to the theme. The closer, "Claudia," is another piano ballad work that has stood the test of time. A standard in the Valdes book, this is the first recorded version of the song. With the band coming up slow and quiet in the background, it is offered as a solo piece might be.
Through this extraordinary collection, the genius of the pianist is at the forefront. Chucho Valdes is simply one of the most important and dynamic musicians to emerge from Cuba ever. He remains one of the most riveting performers this writer has heard in the past 30 years of jazz writing. In a 10-star world, this is a 20-star collection.