Friday, January 20, 2012

Chucho Valdés

Now that I live in New York, seeing live music is much less of an ordeal than it used to be.  I went to Winter Jazzfest a couple of weeks ago, staying out until three a.m. one night.  I took the subway straight home from the West Village.  No NJ Transit, no car ride.  It felt too easy.  Tomorrow night, I'm going to Carnegie Hall to see Chucho Valdés perform with his septet, the Afro-Cuban Messengers.

Before I moved here from New Jersey, I was writing arts and entertainment previews for a local monthly paper called the Princeton Echo.  For one preview, I was lucky enough to interview Mr. Valdés in anticipation of a concert he is giving tonight, at McCarter Theatre, in Princeton. I figured I'd rehash it here as it also pertains, in some ways, to tomorrow night's show. It was my first interview with a translator involved.

Piano Legend Offers a Little Taste of Cuba

The Cuban jazz musician Chucho Valdés is, by many accounts, one of the world’s greatest pianists.

Born in Havana in 1941, Valdés grew up amid the pulsating vibrancy of the Cuban popular music scene. His father, Bebo Valdés, a formidable pianist in his own right who helped develop the mambo, was the musical advisor to the Tropicana, Havana’s storied nightclub, throughout most of the 1950s.

Valdés, who turned 70 last October, cites the influence of many American jazz musicians and their styles: Duke Ellington attracted him first. After that came Art Tatum. Then Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Lennie Tristano, McCoy Tyner, Cecil Taylor. The list goes on—including the staples of many developing jazz musicians.

For the first ten years after the Cuban Revolution in 1959, Valdés explains, it was hard to get information about the music scene in the United States.

“We used to hear jazz on shortwave radio, the Voice of America ‘Jazz Hour,’ hosted by Willis Conover,” Valdés said in Spanish, through a translator, from Málaga, Spain, where he has lived for about a year. He moved from Havana to be closer to his father, now 93, who spends most of his time in Sweden but winters in the warm, Mediterranean city.

Listening to jazz on the radio, Valdés heard for the first time the music of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner.

“I would write out transcriptions of the music on paper for myself, so I could figure out what they were doing,” he said. He did this, by ear, for more than 10 years, from the early 1960s to the early 1970s.

Valdés first came to the United States in 1978 for a performance at Carnegie Hall with the jazz-pop band Irakere. And in 2010, he toured the United States, for the first time since 2003, in the wake of looser travel restrictions and an important visit by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra to Havana.

“I felt like I was floating in the air because of the first concert in New York after the years that I couldn’t come,” Valdés said of his most recent trip, adding: “The United States is the most important place to play jazz.”

This year, Valdés is returning to the American stage for another tour, which he will inaugurate with a performance by his septet, the Afro-Cuban Messengers, at McCarter Theatre on Jan. 20 at 8 p.m.

Valdés said he will be playing selections from his latest record, “Chucho’s Steps,” which won the 2011 Grammy Award for Best Latin Jazz Album, along with new songs from a repertoire he is putting together for his next album.

The Cuban pianist Alfredo Rodriguez will open the show, playing with his trio. Valdés knows the young musician from when he was a boy in Cuba, calling him “a great talent with a huge future.”

With the Afro-Cuban Messengers, Valdés combines elements of the music of his homeland—including intricate webs of percussion and rhythmic chanting—with some of the most accessible aspects of American jazz: the easy-swinging lilt of New Orleans polyphony, the funky trumpet-saxophone voicings of hard-bop.

And through his music, the Cuban pianist expresses himself with the seemingly indefatigable force and precision of a true virtuoso.

The article originally appeared here.

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