Review: Irakere/Leo Blanco at Ronnie's

Irakere's roof-raising musical energy and the gentler charms of the Leo Blanco Trio's opening set provided Dave Jones with a good night out, but he's rather puzzled by the audience's appetite

Before I delve into Irakere’s performance at Ronnie’s last night, I should mention the excellent first set by the Leo Blanco Trio, led by the Venezuelan pianist (pictured right), on this occasion alongside the Scotland-based rhythm pairing of Mario Caribe and Alyn Cosker.

Their music was partly reminiscent of the Michel Camilo Trio - melodic and accessible and delicate and dynamic in fairly equal measure. But Blanco’s trio tended to have a more predominantly gentle Latin flavour, together with vocalising by the pianist and some Arabic influences. These were particularly evident when Blanco reached inside the piano on his own composition Dancing In The Air, which he describes as “a musical recognition of the Muslim cultural influence on our music ‘culture’ in Venezuela”. Although I missed the very early part of their set, the remainder was enough to tempt me into buying a CD or two by the leader.

Like the Loose Tubes gigs at Ronnie’s last year, there was nostalgia in the air for those that remember Irakere’s performances at the club in the 1980s, but this time Chucho Valdés was joined by a new young line-up, including an extremely tight five-piece horn section together with a rhythm section of two percussionists, drums and electric bass. They collectively impressed in particular with their killer grooves, but also with numerous solo and duo percussion features, centred around the excellent Rodney Barreto on drums.

The set didn’t quite gain full momentum until around the half-way mark, when Estela Va A Estallar, based on the chord structure of Victor Young’s standard Stella By Starlight, almost threatened to remove the roof, which made it all the more surprising that some of the audience were eating, even during the middle of the set. How can anyone eat a meal when Irakere are playing at full throttle a matter of yards away, particularly when they’ve paid a not unnoticeable sum to see the band play one set? It’s beyond me, and in years past Ronnie (Scott) might well have had something suitably dry to say about it on the microphone.

Nevertheless, the audience got pretty much what they might have expected from Irakere, along with their trademark - musical quotes, and plenty of them. This time they included Take Five (where after a melodic quote Valdés took the band into the middle eight of Brubeck’s jazz hit), plus a snippet of Zawinul’s Mercy, Mercy, Mercy during a nicely melodic bass solo, and a phrase or two of Parker’s Billie’s Bounce from the horn section.

Valdés, despite now being in his early 70s, also gave us his pianistic trademarks: blurrily quick and florid runs, octaves and block-chords played with masterful intent, Tyner-like tremolandi, and at times an incredible independence of the hands.

So all in all, a very good night, but for me, it didn’t quite seem to have the same gravitas as his 1980s appearances with Irakere at the same venue, but then again, that might be more about the age of the reviewer and that nostalgia I mentioned earlier.

Text by Dave Jones, pictures by Bruce Lindsay

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