A Jazz Thing

It is an often repeated truism that Afro-Cuban jazz was born in the early Forties in New York, that it was introduced to the world by Machito and his Afro-Cubans orchestra, and that it was the brainchild of arranger Mario Bauza. Bauza made his great contribution to modern music by successfully blending rhythmic elements with jazz's harmonic, melodic, and improvisational opulence. This fusion of two formidable musical streams was highly influential on several fronts and caused many musicians to reassess their approach to their instruments. One of the more interesting results has been the slow rise of a distinctive school of Afro-Cuban jazz piano, of which Cuban musician Chucho Valdes is an outstanding representative.

At his best Valdes displays an intimate knowledge of the complex world of Afro-Cuban rhythms as well as an absolute familiarity with American blues and jazz and their respective compositional tools. In addition, he continually shows a predilection for balance and form, a constant in the Western classical tradition. Equipped with unparalleled piano technique and fine musical taste, this giant of the keyboard is a force to take into serious consideration.

The synthesis of all these elements leads to New Conceptions, Valdes's latest release on the Blue Note record label. This collection features seven tracks, including standards, original songs, a new treatment of Miles Davis's "Solar," and a tribute to Duke Ellington. On this, as with his last few CDs, the pianist makes use of a small group format that includes Yaroldy Abreu Robles (congas), Lazaro Rivero Alarcon (bass), and Ramses Rodriguez Baralt (drums). The occasional contributions of a guest are the only elements that augment this chamber group of modern Afro-Cuban jazz.

Recorded in Havana in May of 2002 but only now released, New Conceptions opens with a fresh look at Ernesto Lecuona's "La Comparsa," a number that in recent years has become a standard for Latin jazz artists. In his treatment of the piece Valdes takes the customary approach of theme-and-variations-and-back-to-the-theme, only to embellish it with a montuno section that gives him and guest flautist Jacinto Joaquin Olivero Gavilan additional room for improvisation. "La Comparsa" opens the way for the more adventurous sounds to come.

Next is an Afro-Cuban jazz version of the American standard "You Don't Know What Love Is," in which bembe-like sounds from batá drums are first used to introduce a generally straight-ahead, block-chord approach; and then for the presentation of the theme and a tasteful segue into the later sections of the piece. Though similar to the previous song, this track presents a more exotic rhythmic base and a funkier feel. Alto saxophonist Roman Filiu O'Reilly makes a contribution; unfortunately the song fades to an end less than a minute and a half into his solo.

An original song written by Valdes, "Los Guiros," is the project's most profound immersion in the Afro-Cuban universe. The first half is arranged around an interesting, although not tremendously original, harmonic sequence that gives Alarcon a chance to add riffs reminiscent of a good solo played on conga skins. In the second half the group switches to a full-blooded liturgy complete with Yoruban chants by guest vocalist Dreiser Durruthy Bombale and quotes lifted from Brubeck's "Blue Rondo a la Turk" by Valdes.

The remaining four tracks on New Conceptions give the attentive listener the rest of what is needed in order to get an eloquent portrait of Valdes. "Nanu" is an original romantic ballad played in a style that takes full advantage of the expressive powers of the piano and shows that he can be lyrical as well as explosively rhythmic. The ambitious uptempo rendition of "Solar" includes solos from Abreu, Rodriguez, and tenor saxophonist Irving Acao, as well as an impressively varied piano cadenza from Valdes. "Sin Clave Pero Con Swing" begins with an easy lilt and makes several syncopated jumps before giving Rodriguez another chance to solo. More conventional and less interesting is Valdes's "Homenaje a Ellington," a three-part tribute featuring "Satin Doll," "In A Sentimental Mood," and the oft-covered "Caravan."

To close, New Conceptions is a polished, varied, efficiently planned, and exquisitely performed project by one of today's top musicians. It gives a new appreciation for Chucho Valdes's artistry as well as the satisfaction of having experienced an auditory excursion into the best in modern Afro-Cuban jazz piano.

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Francisco J. Ojeda