Irakere (from a Yoruba word meaning "forest" or "jungle") was founded in 1973 by the brilliant pianist Jesus "Chucho" Valdes. It has produced several major headliners over the years, notably Arturo Sandoval (trumpet) and Paquito D'Rivera (saxophone). The band's sound is a lush but quirky synthesis of Valdes' Afro-Cuban heritage and early classical training, plus bebop jazz and brass charts borrowed from Blood, Sweat, & Tears. He draws heavily upon Cuban folk sources, traditional rhythms, and country dances, but is just as likely to channel the spirits of Dizzie Gillespie or Charlie Parker or co-author a tune with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig Von Beethoven, or the Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona. Before the embargo finally clamped down, American jazz players commonly made pilgrimages to Cuba in search of fresh inspiration and to explore a neighboring branch of the African root system. Irakere was the first government-sanctioned Cuban act to tour throughout the world. They even won a Grammy in 1979, but the defections of Sandoval and D'Rivera during the early '80s kept them from collecting it until 15 years later. This long-time two-way exchange between American and Cuban musicians continues to the present day, and Irakere's repertoire remains a prime example of this impassioned dialog. They really have no equivalent in Cuba or anywhere else but have nonetheless influenced dozens of other bands at home and abroad. The tunes on this compilation include everything from romantic ballroom ballads to incendiary Latin hip-swivelers to nostalgic big band arrangements to vocoder- and synth-embellished electronica, but every note is pure, robustly original Irakere.
AllMusic Review by Christina Roden