Gonzalo Rubalcaba (left) and Chucho Valdés at a rehearsal for their piano duo tour. Photo by Joao Rubalcaba ©

On Monday, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) announced that the worldwide celebration of the  6th International Jazz Day, on April 30th,  will culminate with an all-star concert at the Gran Teatro de La Habana Alicia Alonso.
Pianists, composers and bandleaders Chucho Valdés and Herbie Hancock will serve as artistic directors of the event, which will be broadcast live on Cuban television and live-streamed by UNESCO.

Watch for Valdés and Gonzalo Rubalcaba, the two major pianists in modern Cuban jazz, appearing together for a still-unannounced duo performance. It will be a preview of their upcoming worldwide tour, which starts at the Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia, Italy, in July.

The International Jazz Day concert will feature an extraordinary roster of artists including Ambrose Akinmusire (United States), Carl Allen, (United States), Marc Antoine (France), Richard  Bona (Cameroon), Till Brönner (Germany), A Bu (China), Igor Butman (Russian Federation), Bobby Carcassés (Cuba) Regina Carter (United States), Kurt Elling, (United States), Kenny Garrett, (United States), Antonio Hart, (United States), Takuya Kuroda (Japan), Ivan Lins (Brazil), Sixto Llorente (Cuba), Marcus Miller (United States), Youn Sun Nah (Republic of Korea), Julio Padrón (Cuba), Gianluca Petrella (Italy), Antonio Sánchez (Mexico), Christian Sands (United States), Esperanza Spalding (United States), Ben Williams (United States), Tarek Yamani (Lebanon), Dhafer Youssef (Tunisia), Pancho Amat (Cuba) and César López (Cuba).

UNESCO established International Jazz Day in 2011. Previous host cities include Washington, DC (2016); Paris (2015); Osaka (2014) and Istanbul (2013).

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Salif Keita at the North Beach Bandshell, Miami Beach.
Photo by Luis Olazábal ©

The stature of Malian singer Salif Keita, one of the most distinct, and important, voices from Africa, has long been established. But even great artists have off nights. His performance at the North Beach Bandshell, in Miami Beach, Friday night, was oddly uninspiring.

Expectations were high. His decades long career includes his work as the featured singer with historic ensembles such as The Ambassadeurs and the Rail Band collaborations with jazz and rock figures such as Joe Zawinul and Carlos Santana. Throughout, Keita has championed the Mandingo tradition but also explored elements of Afro-Cuban music, jazz and rock in both, acoustic and electronic settings. Friday, the very makeup of his ensemble suggested a continuing negotiation between tradition and modernity.
The group included both a djembe and a drum kit; a n’goni (an ancient lute-like instrument from West Africa) and an electric guitar, suggesting double trio anchored by a band member playing a sequencer and a MacPro, and two vocalists.
But the promising blends of acoustic and electric instruments, live playing and pre-recorded tracks, never quite materialized, at least in part, because the sound mix was uneven throughout. The textures sounded smudged and blurred.The subtly incantatory nature of much of Keita’s music, a setting for his singing-storytelling, was lost, sounding merely repetitious instead.
Perhaps affected by what he was hearing (or not hearing) Keita often sounded and acted disengaged. His voice, a soaring and expressive tenor, is one of the great instruments in popular music, but Friday he appeared content with fulfilling his commitment with a workmanlike effort. Even his interaction with the audience was cursory, limited to the occasional  “Thank you. Gracias.”

As the show was coming to the end and members of the band were going through their solo features, Keita gestured to an assistant to lead him out and he walked off without even looking back. By then, he was barely there.


Recent arrivals (and some catching up)

Transparent Water, Omar Sosa & Seckou Keita (OtÁ) Exquisite collaboration between Cuban pianist composer and bandleader Omar Sosa and Senegalese kora player and singer Seckou Keita. Don´t expect a narrowly defined Pan-African exploration. In Transparent Water any given piece may also include Asian elements and feature instruments such as the koto, the sheng (a Chinese reed instrument) and the geomungo (a plucked Korean zither). In lesser hands this would have made, perhaps, for an interesting but minor curiosity. But Sosa has made a career out of connecting the dots smartly and beautifully.

El Gavilán, Sofia Rei featuring Marc Ribot (Cascabelera) Argentine vocalist, songwriter and producer Sofia Rei´s tribute to Chilean singer – songwriter Violeta Parra, who would have been 100 next October, is an inspired celebration of the folklorist as innovator.
In El Gavilán, Rei re-imagines some of Parra’s classics ( “Run Run se fue pa’l Norte,” “Maldigo del Alto Cielo,””Casamiento de Negros” ) and puts a spotlight on one of her underappreciated pieces (the title track) by setting them in an often stark, minimalist, electronic landscape built on electric guitars, vocal loops and electronic effects. Folk music for the 21st Century.

Alcanza, Fabian Almazán & Rhizome (Biophilia) An ambitious nine movement suite by Cuban pianist and composer Fabian Almazán leading an ensemble featuring Camila Meza on voice & guitar; Megan Gould and Tomoko Omura, violins; Karen Waltuch, viola; Noah Hoffeld, cello; Linda Oh, bass and Henry Cole, drums.