Chucho Valdés Brings His Message To Berklee

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Jazz pianist Chucho Valdés
Jazz pianist Chucho Valdés

Two years ago Chucho Valdés won a Grammy for Best Latin Jazz CD, “Chucho’s Steps.” I don’t think it needed any qualification. It’s the best jazz CD I’ve heard in years.

You can judge for yourself as the 70-year-old Cuban pianist is coming to the Berklee Performance Center Thursday, Nov. 29 with his new quintet. The Celebrity Series of Boston concert will include music from “Chucho’s Steps” and his upcoming CD with the Afro-Cuban Messengers. He’ll also be performing the following night at the Zeiterion Theatre in New Bedford en route to Carnegie Hall.


Valdés is on a hot streak these days. He’ll be one of four guest curators of Voices from Latin America at Carnegie, joining local composer Osvaldo Golijov (from Argentina), Los Angeles Philharmonic music director Gustavo Dudamel (from Venezuela) and Brazilian singer-songwriter and former minister of culture Gilberto Gil.

Clive Gillinson, the artistic and executive director of Carnegie Hall, credited Golijov with suggesting the other men in a recent New York Times article. Golijov, in the piece, compared Valdés  to Bach, no less, adding:

He really is in command of all the registers: the classical, the Afro-Cuban roots, the present popular idioms, the jazz, even Hollywood music and Broadway musicals. Everything is material to him, and everything becomes music of the most astonishing richness and subtlety.

Right he is, though the CD’s opening, “Zawinul’s Mambo,” is as subtle as a superspeed train tearing down the tracks. It quotes freely from “Birdland,” which Joe Zawinul wrote for his ‘70s supergroup, Weather Report. Valdés turns it into something even more celebratory, calming the boppish introduction before seguing into a more Latin groove and then quoting from other jazz idioms. At the same time, it never feels like he’s merely sampling, more that he and his mates are resolving musical issues as they’re going along. The improvisation feels utterly disciplined, the group dynamic Ellingtonian.

Here's a somewhat more subdued concert version:

As a writer for Jazz Times said:

His solos are virtually flawless, dazzling, and as a bandleader he is assured and commanding—even as he lays back to take in what his cohorts are producing, there is no doubt who is calling the shots … Chucho Valdés is emblematic of the evolution of Afro-Cuban jazz during recent decades, and is still at the top of his game.

I wouldn’t be sure the group was only a quintet if I hadn’t known. It sounds more big bandish, though the new quintet isn’t exactly the same as the one on CD. Fortunately, Yaroldy Abreu Robles on percussion and Dreiser Durruthy Bombal, on bata drums and vocals, are the same. His publicist says that the new songs will be “moving closer to the roots of Afro-Cuban music (including Yoruba chanting) as well as incorporating elements of flamenco and indigenous Indian music, especially Comanche rhythms.”

As if it isn’t eclectic enough already. There may not be a school of jazz that isn’t represented somewhere on “Chucho’s Steps.” There are moments of tenderness worthy of pianists as diverse as Bill Evans ("Danzon") or Abdullah Ibrahim ("Julian"), though such moments are stops along the propulsive way. There’s even some boogie-woogie, swing and free jazz noodling.

Wherever he goes with his music he convinces you that Chucho's steps are all in the right direction.

Chucho Valdes will be performing at the Berklee Performance Center on Thursday, Nov. 29 at 8 p.m. He’ll also be performing at the Zeiterion Theatre in New Bedford on Friday, Nov. 30 at 8 p.m.

This program aired on November 26, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.

Ed Siegel Twitter Critic-At-Large
Now retired and contributing as a critic-at-large, Ed Siegel was the editor of The ARTery.