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On his first album in more than 30 years, pianist Bebo Valdes pays musical tribute to two of his lost colleagues: one American, the other Cuban; both, like Valdes, were pioneers in merging Latin music with American jazz. The first track on Bebo Rides Again, "To the Dizzy Gillespie," is a swinging Cubop jam featuring serpentine solos by saxman Paquito D'Rivera. On another cut, Valdes salutes Mario Bauza with rasping gYiro, playful brass, slinky electric guitar, and darting piano work. Bauza, the famed director of Machito's Afro-Cuban jazz orchestra, played trumpet alongside the young Gillespie in the early Forties in Cab Calloway's band and introduced the American trumpeter to Cuban rhythms.
Valdes, who is credited with making the island's first recording of an Afro-Cuban jazz jam in 1952, has lived in Sweden for the past three decades. Bebo Rides Again, released last year on Messidor, follows the long-awaited albums by Bauza (My Time Is Now) and Israel "Cachao" Lopez (Master Sessions I and II), all of which featured now-fabled lineups consisting of other Cuban jazz giants, members of mambo royalty, and their heirs. D'Rivera, who staged his own Cuban jazz summit at Miami's Criteria Studios for 1993's 40 Years of Cuban Jam Session, conceived and produced Valdes's recording in Germany with yet another cast of top Latin musicians, including Juan-Pablo Torres, Patato Valdes (no relation), and guitarist Carlos Emilio Morales, of the Cuban jazz group Irakere.
Like other recordings that have heralded an important Cuban music renaissance over the past few years, Bebo Rides Again is a comeback album by a master who faded from view but never stopped making music. And the 78-year-old Valdes clearly had a damn good time all the way. Listening to Bebo is like eavesdropping on a gathering of old friends. The instruments mingle and converse, ceding the floor to one another or shouting joyfully together. On danzón, bolero, and several Cuban jazz descargas, Valdes's arrangements of his own compositions and Cuban classics are as smooth as silk stockings. Also included is a "mambo-cha" dance track arranged by Valdes's son, the well-known piano player and Irakere leader Chucho Valdes, who lives in Cuba.
The album evokes the era of the Forties and Fifties, when a stream of musicians flowed between Havana and New York City, creating an ongoing exchange that resulted in some of the most enduring and influential styles of modern music. And from his piano bench at the Tropicana Club, Valdes was at the center of it all.
Speaking exuberantly from his home in Stockholm, Valdes is eager to relive it all in detail. "The Tropicana was paradise," remembers the pianist. "It was the most modern place that you could ever see, and the most beautiful. Everyone came through there -- Nat King Cole, Woody Herman, musicians and singers from all over the world. And I was the piano player."
Growing up poor in the small village of Quivican, Valdes started out as a singer in a school band. He began studying piano with a private teacher, and at seventeen went off to Havana to attend the Municipal Conservatory. Unlike the more affluent students at the school who had pianos at home, Valdes had no instrument to practice on outside of class, and spent most of his time studying theory and working arrangements out on paper.
After graduation Valdes got a job with a small orchestra that performed pasodobles for the Spanish exiles at Havana's Asturian cultural center. It was a living, but Valdes had started listening to records by American jazz musicians and wanted a chance to try out more modern styles. The opportunity came when he was called to audition for the Orquesta Curbelo, which played at Havana's Cabaret Faraon.
"Bebo Valdes arrived at the cabaret, but he didn't come in because he was black. He waited outside on the sidewalk," bandleader Wilfredo G. Curbelo recalls during a recent phone interview. Curbelo, age 84, has lived in Miami since Fidel Castro took power. He made a living playing in area hotels before retiring in 1979. "The nightclub manager came and got me, and I went outside," he continues. "I said, 'Are you waiting for me?' He said, 'Yes, but you know when one is black, one doesn't go inside.' I said, 'Forget that, I need good musicians. I don't care what race they are.' To try out the pianists I had an arrangement by Count Basie," Curbelo continues. "Bebo didn't play the whole thing, but he understood what it was about. I asked my trumpet player what I should do and he said, 'That black kid hasn't played much but if you give him a chance he will play, because he wants like hell to play. You can tell.'"
The bandleader hired him, and today Curbelo -- who has kept in touch with Valdes since they both left Cuba -- still glows with pride over the accomplishments of the younger musician. "Other pianists just play a lot of notes," he says. "They don't have the technique. They're too rigid. Bebo has a special technique. No Cuban piano player, not even Ernesto Lecuona, surpasses him."