The Year of Chucho

In the future, a jazz historian leafing through old files of playbills and press clips could easily determine that 1998 was the year of Cuban piano player Jesus "Chucho" Valdes. It seems that Jesus has indeed been everywhere of late: playing a solo concert at New York's Lincoln Center; performing his big-band arrangements of Afro-Cuban ritual music at MIDEM in Cannes; recording in a Toronto studio with his Cuban jazz quartet; playing with Roy Hargrove's Crisol band on the Grammy Award-winning album Habana; embarking on his first extensive U.S. tour; appearing with his seminal Cuban jazz band Irakere at Havana's Cubadisco record fair, where he was honored with a special achievement award.

And then there are the press accolades. Valdes, age 57, was recently featured in Time. Jazziz magazine critic Mark Holston ventured that "he may be the most complete piano player in the world." A listing in The New Yorker announcing his June appearance at New York's Village Vanguard warned other piano players planning to attend the gig that witnessing Valdes's effortless, innovative integration of Latin, jazz, and classical piano technique might make them wish they had never been born.

The piano player has been known to American jazz aficionados for decades. In 1979 Irakere won a Grammy Award for a self-titled album issued on Columbia Records during a short-lived thaw in U.S-Cuba relations. The current widespread buzz about Valdes has coincided with his solo deal with Blue Note Canada, distributed here by New York's Blue Note Records. (Blue Note head Bruce Lundvall signed Irakere to Columbia when he was an A&R man there).

Valdes says he signed with Blue Note with the idea of establishing himself as a soloist. He still performs with Irakere occasionally but has gradually been ceding his place in the band to his 28-year-old son, Chuchito. This allows him more time to travel, particularly to the States, where he has been able to perform with talents like Hargrove and Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, in addition to his Cuban quartet.

"There's a lot I can learn from them about the jazz genre," Valdes said during a January interview in a Manhattan studio where he was mixing Bele Bele en La Habana, now out on Blue Note. Valdes stands north of six feet five, and his resemblance to a basketball star is enhanced by his penchant for wearing sweatsuits and sneakers. "It's important for me to come to New York and see the reaction of the public and the musicians here."

One of his dreams was to play to the informed jazz audience at the Vanguard, a Greenwich Village institution. After seeing Valdes perform and having traveled to Cuba as his guest at the Havana Jazz Festival (of which he is founder and director), Vanguard owner Lorraine Gordon booked him for the first two weeks in June.

The engagement was an unusual one. Under U.S. regulations, concerts by Cuban musicians must be seen as cultural exchanges, and it had yet to be established whether an extended booking in a club would qualify as such. The day of the gig came, and Valdes's visa had not been approved by the State Department. Finally, under pressure from protesting fans, U.S. officials granted the visa and Valdes played one week of concerts to packed houses. "It ended in a blaze of glory," gushes Gordon. New York Times critic Peter Watrous wrote that Valdes's astoundingly imaginative improvisational technique drew gasps from the audience.

The celebrated piano player is scheduled to give his first concert in a Miami venue on Tuesday as part of the MIDEM conference. Valdes and Irakere are on the bill with singer Compay Segundo and La Charanga Rubalcaba (led by Gonzalo Rubalcaba's father Guillermo) at the Miami Beach Convention Center. When New Times went to press, none of the performers had yet received their visas. The musicians are part of a larger Cuban contingent expected at MIDEM that would also include representatives from record labels and other members of the Cuban music industry -- according to one Havana music industry source, nearly 100 people in all.

As far as the public is concerned, it really doesn't matter whether the musicians come or not. The "Cuban Legends" concert will be open only to MIDEM delegates and will be performed under high security. MIDEM officials say that decision was made before appearances of Vocal Sampling, Issac Delgado, and Carlos Varela in Miami this year proved that Cubans can play here (at least in Miami Beach) without incident.

While Valdes's fans among the general public won't be able to see him play here this week, listening to a trio of recent releases is fine consolation. Chucho Valdes Live (RMM) captures a playful Cuban jam session held to benefit a New York hospital last year. A more classical Valdes can be heard on Chucho Valdes Live Piano Solo (VV Records) recorded at the Montreal International Jazz Festival in 1993. Bele Bele en La Habana showcases Valdes at his versatile best, from a masterful mambo styling of George Gershwin's "But Not for Me" to the danzon standard "Tres Lindas Cubanas," played with tremendous feeling and heart-singing swing, to the jamming "Con Poco Coco," written by his father, Latin jazz pioneer Bebo Valdes, who has lived in Sweden since the Sixties.

On the phone from his home near Stockholm, a proud Bebo remembers when he left the house one day for the Club Tropicana where he played piano. He got as far as the bus stop when he realized he had forgotten his music, and went back to the house to find Chucho, then fours years old, sitting at the piano and pounding out the song he had left on the music stand. "He was destined for greatness," beams Bebo.

By the time he was in his twenties, Chucho had gotten together his first jazz band while working as the pianist in the pit orchestra at the Havana Music Theater. He moved further into the realm of Cuban jazz with the groundbreaking Cuban Orchestra of Modern Music, directed by Armando Romeu. With some musicians from that jazz big band, including Miami resident Arturo Sandoval, Valdes formed Irakere and created a completely different sound. "We were the first musicians to create dance music with the phrasing of Dizzy Gillespie, Clifford Brown, and Charlie Parker within Cuban music," he says. He plans to continue such innovations into the next century.

Chucho says he does not think he will permanently leave Cuba, where he is continuing what he says will be a lifelong study of Afro-Cuban religious rhythms. But he is set on creating the conditions in which he and his American colleagues can further the development of the long and fruitful relationship between Cuban music and jazz. "I'm the center of attention now, but we've all been a product of the evolution of Cuban piano," says Valdes. "We've all taken something from what's come before us and all of our influences are present in the music today. In the Thirties there was Jesus Lopez, then Lili Martinez and after that Peruchin, who was an influence in the fusion of jazz and Cuban music at the same time that Frank Emilio Flynn was playing Latin jazz and my father as well.

"And then, beginning in the Sixties," he says with a smile, "came the influence of Chucho Valdes.


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