Cuban pianist Chucho Valdes rides explosion of interest in Latin jazz.
Thursday, September 16, 1999
At a looming 6-foot-5-inches tall, his head shaved and a Cheshire smile affixed to his big round face, Chucho Valdes looks like he could almost command just such a rainstorm. The son of renowned Cuban pianist/composer Bebo Valdes, Chucho was born in Havana in 1941, and had already been playing piano several years by the time Dizzy Gillespie and a conga-playing friend of his father''s, Chano Pozo, more or less invented Afro-Cuban jazz with the recording of "Manteca" in New York in 1947. Having helped fuse traditional Cuban music with American bebop as musical director of Havana''s famed Tropicana Night Club in the late ''40s, Bebo fled Castro''s revolution in 1960, leaving the younger Valdes to continue his musical education on his own. In 1970, Chucho brought his father''s legacy into the present by founding Irakere, a real "fusion" band, featuring "Cubop" renowneds-to-be Arturo Sandoval and Paquito D''Rivera.
"I started playing when I was three," Valdes says. "I learned to play by myself--watching my father. I was a child when I met Nat King Cole. And Dizzy. And Sarah [Vaughan], Milt Jackson, Ray Brown, Buddy Rich. Imagine. For me, it was extraordinary. Super.
"When I was 16,
I started playing in trios and quartets.
We practiced every day. It was jazz,
which I liked very much. But it was also
African music, Santeria--music of my people."
"When I was 16, I started playing in trios and quartets. All the young guys. Always practicing and playing. We played every Sunday. During the week, we all played at home. We practiced every day.
"It was everything. It was jazz, which I liked very much. But it was also African music, Santeria--music of my people. Congo. But jazz mostly. We played bebop. Like a Latino Charlie Parker, Latino Dizzy, Bud Powell--all those people. Monk. We played in that style, but with Cuban congas and drums. The same thing, but with Afro-Cuban percussion."
Often compared to Art Tatum for his ability to turn harmonic conventions inside-out at light speed--those conventions being a complex mix of American jazz, European classical music, and Afro-Caribbean rhythms--Valdes and Irakere ("equatorial forest") quickly found an audience on international jazz stages. In 1978, with their first album for Columbia Records in the States (fourth overall), Irakere even won a Grammy.
Despite the Grammy and another nomination the following year for Irakere''s sophomore stateside release, as well as the fact that Valdes was fast becoming known around the world as a preeminent jazzman, decades of politics and trade embargoes between Cuba and the U.S. relegated the pianist to the status of relative unknown everywhere west of Miami. It wasn''t until he won his second Grammy, as part of Texas trumpeter Roy Hargrove''s all-star Afro-Cuban band Crisol and their superb 1997 Verve release, Habana, that Valdes got some of his due.
In 1998, Blue Note Records capitalized on the growing media awareness of Valdes by releasing his solo debut, Bele Bele en la Habana. It, too, was marvelous, landing at or near the No. 1 spot on virtually every jazz critic''s year-end Top Ten poll.
"Everybody liked it," he agrees. "I think because it''s different. It''s Latin jazz, but another kind of Latin jazz. It''s a Latin jazz that''s a lot more Cuban. Con m s sabor. And it has elements of jazz, yes, but it''s an album that''s more Cuban-Cuban jazz."
Given the success of the Buena Vista Social Club, a group of Cuban balladeers and musicians conjuring the Latin America of the 1920s and ''30s with the help of Ry Cooder, as well as subsequent spin-offs from Ruben Gonz lez, Compay Segundo, Ibrahim Ferrer, and Eliades Ochoa--not to mention other label endeavors such as Rykodisc''s >Cubanismo! series--market awareness of Cuban music is at an all-time high. World music, in general, has finally blipped on the radar screens of many American consumers.
"It''s good, because it''s opening up new panoramas for Latin music, Afro-Cuban music," says Valdes. "And it''s best it opened up with the Buena Vista Social Club, because it''s the music that''s easiest to understand. Of Cuban rhythms, it''s the easiest to understand--a good form of introduction to the public at large. Very much for the people."
In addition to Bele Bele en la Habana, Blue Note also released Yemay last year, a new recording by Irakere, which Valdes is currently training his son Francisco--already the group''s musical director--to take over. Bele Bele en la Habana received a proper follow-up from Blue Note, Briyumba Palo Congo/Religion of the Congo, a more commercial endeavor than its predecessor--featuring three standards by two American composers celebrating centennials, Gershwin ("Embraceable You," "Rhapsody in Blue") and Duke Ellington ("Caravan")--yet a work whose ambition lies in intertwining the two branches of central African religion practiced in Cuba today.
"It isn''t Santeria," explains Valdes, also heard accompanying famed Havana diva Omara Portuondo on her new release, Desafios. "The religion of the Congo is called Briyumba Palo, because the people work with wood--different instruments--different vocals. And a different language--an African language."