At 59, Jesus "Chucho" Valdes is a senior statesman of the post-embargo
Cuban music scene. The son of pianist Bebe Valdes, Chucho began playing
at age 3 and developed a reputation as a prodigy. His father was a
mainstay of Havana's Tropicana club during the wide open days of the 1950s
and the Valdes household welcomed many prominent jazz players. By this
time, Chucho was studying classical piano and was, of course, exposed to
son, panzon and other Cuban folk forms that had grown from Latin and
African origins. From that exposure to US jazz, Cuban tradition and
western classics would come the unique synthesis represented by the
music of Chucho Valdes.
When Bebe Valdes left Cuba in 1961, his son remained behind. By this
time, Chucho was well established in Cuban musical circles, but when the
Kennedy administration began the embargo against Cuba that remains in
force to this day, it made wider exposure for the younger Valdes
problematic. Chucho continued to develop his music, though, taking a
cue from the popularization of Afro-Cuban sounds by artists like
Machito, Candido and those they inspired like Dizzy Gillespie. He
deepened his knowledge of the African roots with studies in Yoruban
rhythms and language, and absorbed the influences of pianists like Art
Tatum, Bill Evans and Oscar Peterson. In 1967 he formed the Orquesta
Cubana de Musica Moderne, from which came Irakere, formed in 1973.
During a modest thaw in US/Cuban relations under Pres. Jimmy Carter,
Irakere appeared at the Newport Folk Festival in 1978. That performance
was captured on tape, and in 1979 Irakere became the first post-embargo
Cuban act to garner a contract with a US label when Columbia released
the resulting album. That recording also produced Chucho Valdes first
Grammy award. The next would come 19 years later for a project with
trumpeter Roy Hargrove, which, coincidentally, featured another festival
Although Chucho insists that "Music is music, music is not political,"
he admits that "The relations between the countries, that is hard, but
the music is the music." One of the hard things about those relations
produces as much pleasure as pain, as it turns out. Because of the
challenges of booking a Cuban artist into a US recording studio, a great
deal of the output of Chucho Valdes consists of live recordings,
with Irakere, the Chucho Valdes Three or the Chucho Valdes Quartet.
This includes the latest Blue Note release by the Quartet, Live At The
Village Vanguard. The Vanguard, founded in 1935, is a New York jazz
Mecca, and Valdes appreciates the legacy.
"The Vanguard has a great history," he told Cosmik's DJ Johnson. "Some
of the best players, they made records live in the Vanguard. Coltrane
and many others. For me, it's a big honor to play at the Vanguard."
The predominance of live recordings in the Chucho Valdes catalog is
fitting, because he is a phenomenal improviser on stage, drawing from
his own compositions and from an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz, pop and
classical melodies as take off points.
Those that tend to push all Cuban music into a box labeled "salsa"
might be surprised at Valdes' range, but he reaches well beyond his
national roots. "I think of Cuba, of course, and of the Afro-Cuban
music there, but I think of many, many other things, too. I think very
much of Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner, Art Tatum, Cecil Taylor, Bud Powell,
Oscar Peterson, so there are elements of Cuba and of jazz piano
In addition to his ensemble work, Valdes has begun to give more
attention to solo concerts, where his musical range is extended even
more widely. "I like very much to play solo," he told Cosmik. "I can
play a fusion, Afro-Cuban jazz with jazz, with a little classical...I
play totally free."
Valdes expects his next release to be of a recent solo concert at the
Lincoln Center, which he describes as "my best piano solo." The
opportunity to hear him at his best, solo or in any other format, is
something to look forward to.
Until then, we have the new Village Vanguard release and the current
tour of the Chucho Valdes Quartet to tide us over. I've had the
pleasure of enjoying each lately, and the pleasure is nearly
The Quartet is Valdes with a trio of young Cuban players, Francisco
Rubio Pampin on bass, Raul Pineda Roque on trap drums and Roberto
Vizcaino Guillot on conga and bata drums. On the album, they are joined
by another member of the musical Valdes clan, Chucho's daughter Mayra,
on vocals for "Drums Negrita." His son, now residing in Mexico, is a
former member of Irakere and his daughter Layani is studying classical
piano in Milan, Italy, where at 18 she has already begun winning European
competitions. Whether from his homeland, or within his home, Chucho Valdes
gives as much attention to developing young talent as he does to developing
his own inimitable music.
The album concentrates on Valdes' original compositions, along with the
standard "My Funny Valentine." Of course, with Chucho Valdes at the
keyboard and a Latin rhythm section beside him, this version of the
venerable tune is anything but standard. At moments, he takes the song
on an improvisational ride outside, without ever losing the melodic
base. As the track closes, the rhythm section falls away while Chucho
takes a pensive solo, before the ensemble closes with a typically Afro-
The next cut is equally noteworthy, and shows the mutual influences that
drive bop and Afro-Cuban music (it should be remembered that be-bop
pioneer Dizzy Gillespie was instrumental in introducing Afro-Cuban music
to US jazz audiences). "To Bud Powell" is an unabashed musical love
letter to the man Valdes describes as "....the best bebop player on the
piano. He had a beautiful history. I know that some of the older players
had some influence over Bud Powell, but I wanted to make a tribute to him
in the Latin style."
As fine an album as Live At The Village Vanguard is, and I recommend it
without reservation, it's a slight preparation for the experience of
Chucho Valdes live. The stage at Seattle's Jazz Alley was crowded with
implements of percussion, and I wondered for a moment how his piano
would compete with a trap set that featured a five ride and crash
cymbals, a high hat, three toms, bass, snare and both mounted and pedal
cowbells along with four congas, a pair of bata drums and a double bass.
My concerns were unwarranted. When Chucho Valdes takes the stage, he
owns the stage. First, of course, there's his status as a pioneering
master of modern Afro-Cuban music. Then there's the man himself, who,
at 6'6", towers over his band and his instrument. Then there's his
skill, his capacity to use the entire keyboard to produce every
conceivable mood, from sensitively crafted solo meditations to furious,
rhythmic attacks. Finally, there is the skill of the three rhythm
players themselves. I was particularly impressed by Raul Pineda Roques'
ability to use the entirety of his impressive trap set up with equally
impressive restraint. When the time came, he could pound as furiously
as the mood and moment required, but only when the time came. Bassist
Guillot was similarly impressive, taking several notable solos.
Given the range of Valdes' book and the improvisational nature of his
approach, I'm afraid I can't offer a complete set list. Easily
recognizable, though, was a reprise of one of the album tracks, "My
Funny Valentine," and a tour de force version of Gershwin's "Rhapsody In
Blue." The version of "Valentine" he played that night was somewhat
freer than the album take, with a longer solo turn. The "Rhapsody" was
simply the finest performance I have ever heard of the Gershwin classic,
live or recorded, with extended solos that drifted into "I'm Just A Lucky
So And So" and then into previously uncharted territory before returning
to the familiar theme.
Though he quickly points out that he plays in a different style, and for
a largely well established audience, Chucho Valdes does acknowledge that
the popularity of projects like the Buena Vista Social Club is having a
favorable effect for Cuban artists in general, and that he is no
exception. His status with Blue Note seems solid, with his two previous
releases garnering Grammy nominations (Valdes has a total of five
nominations and two awards for his various musical incarnations). His
current tour continues, and if there's only one jazz show you're going
to see while he's near your town, his is the one to go to. If he's not
coming close enough soon enough, be sure to pick up a copy of Live At
The Village Vanguard. In fact, if you just saw him yesterday, or you're
going to see him tomorrow, be sure to pick up a copy of Live At The
Village Vanguard. He's a marvel and the album is marvelous.
Track List -
Live At The Village Vanguard: Anabis * Son XXI (Para Pia)
* Punto Cubano * My Funny Valentine * To Bud Powell * Drume Negrita *
Como Tragio La Yuca * Ponle La Clave * Encore - Lorraine's Habanera
(C) 2000 - Shaun Dale & DJ Johnson