BOSTON — It’s amazing how jazz artists of a certain age exhibit a deceptive effortlessness, as if their fingers have attained so much wisdom and dexterity that there’s no longer any need to show off. The body may sag or weaken, but those ten digits are seemingly forever young.
That’s the impression I used to get watching the late violinist Stephane Grappelli at the Regattabar in his 80s. Chucho Valdés, a relative tyke at 70, has the same way with the piano as he showed at Thursday’s Celebrity Series of Boston concert at the Berklee Performance Center. It was hard to believe such a rich and full tone, nuanced playing, and stylistic variety were being produced with such little flare.
Which made the proceedings all the more jaw-dropping, not only from the great Cuban pianist, but the flashier members of the quintet. Valdés is responsible for practically the whole melodic line while the two percussionists, drummer and bassist are a four-man rhythm team. But when Valdés is taking care of the melody, that’s really all you need.
As I said in previewing the concert, the stylistic changes are stunning. Beginning with the beauty of “People,” his opening solo – Barbra Streisand never got either this funky or this classical – Valdés was wondrous at how he could turn on a dime from Oscar Peterson-like soulfulness to a Rubén González slide or even a bit of Bach-like classicism, never making it seem as if he was switching genres for anything but musically organic reasons.
At times he’d wag his finger at his wilder and woolier, if better-dressed, quintet (all about half his age) as if admonishing them to behave. Actually, he was just keeping time as there were other moments when he veered toward atonality while they kept a more conventional groove.
There wasn’t anything conventional, though, about most of their work and certainly not their solos. Rodney Yllarza Barreto began coaxing his drums as if willing them to come to life, which they did in full-thrash style. Dreiser Durruthy Bombalé was the life of the party on vocals and batá drum, but the audience members who left before the second encore should rue their early exits. Bombalé put on a dancing show, as if possessed, shimmying against the side wall before taking to a Berklee aisle. There may even have been a somersault when he was out of view.
I was surprised there weren’t more Berklee students in attendance. Jazz artists of all ages could learn a lot from Chucho Valdés.