Chucho Valdes Briyumba Palo Congo (Religion of the Congo)

Now that music critics and major and boutique labels alike are enamoured of all things Cuban, it’s only natural that the honorific of "legendary" would get tossed around as liberally as it is in jazz and blues. Pianist Chucho Valdes has just about as much claim to such a title as anyone else with a lengthy and distinguished career behind him and on the strength of Briyumba Palo Congo, lots more in the can. What Valdes might be best known for, and certainly what he does peerlessly on this album, is bring a Latin jazz sensibility to American standards, and his approach is anything but programmatic. On Duke Ellington’s timeless and oft-covered "Caravan," Valdes’s band ups the rhythmic ante with a mad percussive frenzy that actually suggests bazaar more than caravan, but his take on the Gershwin’s "Embraceable You" is far more classicist, with barely a hint of Latin influence and filled instead with elaborate flourishes on the ivories. Somewhere in the middle is an intriguing and necessarily truncated version of "Rhapsody in Blue," which stamps its own US-Cuba visa with what amounts to a mambo breakbeat inserted into the middle of Gershwin’s raptures — and given Gershwin’s original importing of jazz to liven up classical music with its virtuoso earthiness, I think he’d have approved. (Blue Note)