With Jazz Batá 2 (Mack Avenue), Cuban pianist/bandleader Chucho Valdés returns to the small-group format that he used for his 1972 album Jazz Batá (Agrem). That album—recorded with just piano, bass, and batá drums—heralded the later success of Valdés’ group Irakere, an Afro-Cuban big band that forwarded the evolution of Latin jazz by an order of magnitude.

On the current album Valdés pays a musical debt to his father, Ramón “Bebo” Valdés, one of the most influential Cuban big bandleaders of the 20th century. To honor what would have been his father’s 100th birthday, Valdés offers up his arrangement of “100 Años de Bebo,” a danzón mambo melody written by the elder Valdés, alluring in its movement and touching in its simplicity. Beyond the homage, this track adds an interesting footnote to Afro-Cuban music history: “No one’s heard this tune,” Valdés writes. “I’m the only person who knows it.”

For the other compositions on the album, Valdés draws inspiration from, variously, the jazz avant garde, Cuban religious myths, and European classical music. Against the dynamic rhythms of Cuban composer Enrique Ubieta’s “Son XXI,” he plays a kinetic, free solo line. On the mini-suite “Obatalá,” he invokes the Yoruban god of that name through beseeching vocals and the deity’s own rhythmic pattern. And on “The Clown,” a solo piano piece, he references the impressionistic works of French composer Maurice Ravel. Throughout all of the tunes on the album, though, the batá grounds Valdés’ playing in a specific cultural context, even as his jazz vocabulary speaks to a broader musical one.   

Valdés’ band—bassist Yelsy Heredia, batá player/singer Dreiser Durruthy Bombalé, and percussionist Yaroldy Abreu Robles—provide unfailing support in the accomplishment of Valdés’ latest creative vision, and violinist Regina Carter’s solos on two of the tracks are nothing short of dazzling.

(Reprinted from the January issue of Downbeat magazine.)