ON THE TURNTABLE

IRAKERE -- Irakere, Columbia, JC 35655.

BYRON MORRIS AND UNITY -- Vibrations, Themes, and Serenades, EPI Records, EPI-03.

IN PERSON

BYRON MORRIS AND UNITY -- Friday and Saturday, 9 and 11, at dc space, $4.

JIM HALL/BOB BROOKMEYER -- Sunday and Monday, 8 and 10:30 at the Cellar Door. Call for reservations. $6 cover.

IRAKERE -- Sunday, March 25, 8 and 10:30, at the Cellar Door. Call for reservations. $6 cover. Monday, March 26, at 8 in D.A.R. Constitution Hall, with Steve Stills. Tickets: $7.50 and $8.50.

It's hard enough to categorize familiar styles of popular American music without trying to find a place for foreign sounds. But, it's human nature to come up with labels like folk-rock, jazz-rock, and space-rock. In the case of Irakere (pronounced eery-kerry), people have tried Latin jazz-rock, Latin fusion, salsa-fusion, and a host of other misnomers. What Irakere really plays is new Cuban musio.

Irakere is an 11-piece band that made its American debut last summer, wowing audiences at the Newport Jazz Festival and generally sending critics from coast to coast running to their thesauruses for proper superlatives. Part of the reason for the acclaim was the group's talent and energy. Another reason was that Irakere is one of the few Cuban bands to play in the United States since the revolution.

A few Cuban musicians -- the late Chano Pozo, Mongo Santamaria, and Machito are probably the best known -- have gained some degree of success in the States. But many Americans still perceive Cuban music as Ricky Ricardo doing "Babaloo" on "I Love Lucy." Irakere should change that perception in a hurry.

Irakere's premiere American release, called "Irakere," is based on percussion, especially the conga. This influence dates back to American slave-trade days when members of the African Yoruba tribe first came to Cuba. They brought their native rhythms to the Caribbean and used congas during religious ceremonies. Today's Cuban music retains this African percussive influence and Irakere blends modern fusion with the old Yoruba rhythms for a hot mix of jazz and Afro-Cuban heritage.

Oscar Valdes, Enrique Pla, Jorge Alfonso and Armando Cuervo comprise a formidable percussion section that sets the tone for most of Irakere's music. Valdes and Pla were formerly with the Cuban Modern Music Orchestra, considered by many the best orchestra in Cuba. Guitarist Carlos Emilio Morales, bassist Carlos del Puerto and trumpeters Arturo Sandoval and Jorge Varona are also ex-CMMO. and the familiarity makes for a tight ensemble.

Familiarity, though, can only take you so far. Irakere utilizes its members, all of whom are excellent soloists, for maximum strength. Besides the percussionists, the horn section is an integral part of Irakere's compositions. Chucho Valdes plays an almost classical piano solo during "Misa Negra," and the saxophones of Carlos Averhoff and Paquito D'Rivera add warmth and smooth out some of Irakere's rough edges. Some -- not all.

The album was recorded live at last year's Newport and Montreux jazz festivals, and though it's easy to get caught up in Irakere's exuberance, it's not easy to explain away the band's lapses into repetitiveness and lack of cohesion.

There are moments when the highly-touted percussion section gets out of control, and other times when Irakere sounds more like 11 soloists than one unit.

An attempt to blend different traditions by using electronics is not always successful. Sometimes, the modern melodic structures do not match the native rhythms. Still, it's adventurous and the music produced is different from most anything played by any American band -- jazz or rock.

Irakere's live show is even more exciting than the music on record. They will be in town next Sunday (March 25) at the Cellar Door and again the following night at D.A.R. Constitution Hall as the opener for Steve Stills.

Before Irakere comes to town next week, several other jazz artists will perform a variety of American music. Friday and Saturday nights, Byron Morris and Unity will appear at dc space.

Morris is a Washington resident whose latest album, "Vibrations, Themes, and Serenades" is a neat compilation of jazz standards and more experimental pieces recorded in 1975 and 1978. Morris plays saxophone and flute (when he's not playing records on WPFW's "Bright Moments" program), and he and his band do tasty versions here of Charles Mingus' "Goodbye Porkpie Hat" and Kenny Barron's "Sun Shower." Morris' material at dc space is likely to be a bit more esoteric than this earlier material.

Jazz fans with a more traditional ear should check out guitarist Jim Hall and trombonist Bob Brookmeyer at the Cellar Door Sunday and Monday night.

Hall is one of the most fluid guitarists in jazz, and rarely passes through the District. Brookmeyer is known for his work with Clark Terry, Stan Getz, and Woody Herman, and he gained duet experience with pianist Bill Evans.

Hall and Brookmeyer are now recording for Jim Gickings' (Horizon Records) new Artists' House label and will release an album shortly.