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Rafael Zaldivar: Rumba

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Rafael Zaldivar Portrait
Cuban-Canadian pianist, Rafael Zaldivar

The inimitable pianist, Rafael Zaldivar – like almost every Afro-Cuban musician – has never really left his heritage behind, no matter how far from his home he has ventured; in this case, as far as the city of Montréal, in Québec, Canada. But as much as Mr Zaldivar’s proverbial musical wagon is hitched to the cultural topography of Cuba, his expresses himself with a rare, truly singular degree of [Québécois?] musical freedom. Both of these characteristics may be heard all over his brilliant sophomore album, Rumba. What a thrill it is to find this uncommon melding together of tradition and invention.

Rafael Zaldivar: Rumba
Rafael Zaldivar: Rumba

Mr Zaldivar reminds us – in his brief album note – that the idea of the Rumba is an almost sacred kind of celebration of the African Diaspora – both Cuban and [more broadly] Caribbean. The idiom and inflections of musical speech are, of course extraordinarily varied. Yet, as rumbas go, this one is truly special. And here is what sets this music apart from anything you have ever heard before [and this is no hyperbole] – and ultimately why Mr Zaldivar emerges as one of the true geniuses of his instrument; an innovator par excellence.

The album begins with a reverential chant to “Eleggua”, the syncretized [in Santeria worship] great “Master of Force” [Yoruba], from whom everything flows. But soon the musical surprises come – fast and furious. “A Prayer” follows, and it features the fine alto saxophonist, Miguel Zenón playing Mr Zaldivar’s music as you have never heard him play: velvet-toned; almost hushed, which is so far-removed from the sharp vocalastic and brassy-tone with which he [Mr Zenón] usually plays. Thus the woodwind-like tones of the music float benignly over the rippling rhythms of the rest of the ensemble.

This is something the musicians continue to do – especially the guests who almost always seem to play “against the grain”, in order to interpret the eloquent idiomatic music that flies off the paper from which they are reading. There is a considerable sense of noble balance and integration of melody, harmony and rhythm, of composition and improvisation, of sophisticated exploration, individuality and tradition everywhere, and this is what sets this music apart in ingenuity and invention.

“Guajiro” is spun out like gossamer [guajira], from the heart of the traditional “Guantanamera”, the singing and dancing is at the heart of “Baila mi Changüi”, which features a delicate curlicue of a bass line that underpins what is really [at heart] a traditional and brilliantly crafted changüi, culled from its origins as it dances in time into our century. The invention continues with Mr Zaldivar revealing his virtuoso chops on such music as “Dolor de Amar”, a spectacular Brasilian musical adventure with [ever-so-appropriately] Kurt Rosenwinkel that traverses afoxé, maracatu de baque virado [“maracatu of the turned-around beat”] and capoeira heralded by the sound of ngoma drums [the atabaques of Yoruba candomblé], and every African idiom, dancing its way into this exhilarating music.

The recording is populated with individuals whose mighty artistry is spectacularly showcased: guitarist Mr Rosenwinkel and his seemingly symphonic approach to musicianship, drummer and harmonic colourist Terri Lyne Carrington is on song every time she is called upon to set up her rhythmic wall. The Santeria chants by father-and-son Amado Dedeu and Amado Dedeu Jr that power “Eleggua” to open the set and “Obatala” in the final prayer are appropriately reverential and magical. Masterful contributions also come by way of the perfect pairing of contrabassist Roberto Occhipinti with drummer Amhed Mitchel on the dolorous “Crying for Cuba”. This kind of magic is repeated again on “Tiempos de Amar”, this time with the muted beauty of the trumpet of Ingrid Jensen.

However, it is the surprises that come by way of songs such as “A Prayer”, “Guajiro”, “Dolor de Amar” and – for me at least, this recording’s twin-apogees – the monumental melodic, harmonic and rhythmic attack of “Baila mi Changüi” and “Short Blues” that make this recording something to die for. Most of all I would be remiss if I did not sing the virtuoso musicianship of the two relatively unsung Québécois musicians – especially the great rhythmists: bassist Rémi-Jean LeBlanc and drummer Louis-Vincent Hamel. Together these two musicians make Mr Zaldivar’s music sound so much more meaningful rhythmically, harmonically, and – often – melodically as well. This is already the “Album of the Year” 2022.

Tracks – 1: Eleggua; 2: A Prayer; 3: Interlude; 4: Baila mi Changüi; 5: Guajiro; 6: Two Words; 7: Short Blues; 8: Dolor de Amar; 9: Alma; 10: Crying for Cuba; 11: Tiempos de Amar; 12: Obbatala

Musicians – Rafael Zaldivar: acoustic grand piano, synthesizer [1, 2, 8, 9, 11], vocals [12] and percussion [2 – 4]; Amado Dedeu [père]: vocals [12]; Amado Dedeu García Jr: vocals [1, 12] and percussion [1, 4, 5, 12]; Sara Rossy: vocals [2]; Dayron Luis San Juan Muguercia: vocals [12] and percussion [12]; Jorge Verona: vocals [12]; Kurt Rosenwinkel: guitar [8]; Ingrid Jensen: 1st trumpet [11]; Alexis Baro: 1st trumpet [10]; Jocelyn Couture: 1st trumpet [4]; Remi Cormier: 2nd trumpet [4]; Alexander Brown: 2nd trumpet [10]; Ron de Lauro: 3rd trumpet [4]; Miguel Zenón: alto saxophone [2]; Luis Deniz: alto saxophone [10]; Jean-Pierre Zanella: alto saxophone [4]; André Leroux: tenor saxophone [4]; Kirk McDonald: tenor saxophone; Pat LaBarbera: tenor saxophone [10]; Rémi-Jean LeBlanc: contrabass and electric bass [3 – 5, 7 – 9]; Roberto Occhipinti: contrabass [10]; Louis-Vincent Hamel: drums [3, 7 – 9]; Terri Lyne Carrington: drums [4, 5]; Amhed Mitchel: drums [2, 10] and synthesizer [9]; Carlos Henrique Feitosa: percussion [8]; Jorge Luis “Papiosco”: percussion [10]

Released – 2022
Label – Effendi [FND 167]
Runtime – 54:07

Based in Canada, Raul is a poet, musician and accomplished critic whose profound analysis is reinforced by his deep understanding of music, technically as well as historically.

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