Irakere, the fiery Cuban jazz ensemble formed nearly 30 years ago by pianist Jesus "Chucho" Valdes, saxophonist Paquito D'Rivera and trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, has undergone numerous personnel changes. Yet despite the absence of its commanding co-founders, the current lineup made a powerfully rhythmic statement at the Warner Theatre Friday night.
Valdes' indomitable spirit was felt throughout the concert, presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society. Two of his tunes, "Estella by Starlight" and "San Francisco," offered sharply contrasting examples of his skills as a composer and arranger. The former tune moved abruptly from pianist Toni Perez's fanciful chromatic cadenza into a series of fiercely syncopated choruses erupting with the sound of brass and reeds. The latter piece evoked the heyday of soul-jazz, thanks to its catchy theme and guitarist Jorge Luis Chicoy's blues inflections.
Singer Mayra Caridad Valdes, Chucho's sister, also made sure the family name was emblazoned on the ensemble's arrangements, her elastic alto often soaring over the clave rhythms forged by drummer Enrique Pla and conguero Adel Gonzalez. The impact of Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and other American jazz artists was clearly evident in the round-robin trumpet and sax solos that punctuated the evening. Yet it was the ensemble sound--12 musicians layering brash tones over infectious rhythms--that carried the evening and brought the audience to its feet.