Virtuoso Valdés Shows How It’s Done

Chucho Valdes, shown here at the London Jazz Festival, founded the Cuban group Irakere in 1972.By William D. Aubin

Watching Chucho Valdés, the man called the “Dean of Latin Jazz” by the New York Times, perform at the Hopkins Center on the evening of the 26th was not only an immersion into a world completely removed from Hanover, New Hampshire, but a chance to gain a profound insight into the history of jazz, Cuban identity, and the current generation of instrumental musicians.  Valdés performed with the Afro-Cuban Messengers: Lázaro Rivero Alarcón on bass, Juan Carlos Rojas Castro on drums, Yaroldy Abreu Robles on percussion, Dreiser Durruthy Bambolé on batá drum and vocals, Carlos Manuel Miyares Hernandez on tenor saxophone, and Reinaldo Melián Álvarez on trumpet.  Each man deserves to be mentioned individually, rather than as a backing ensemble, because there was not a song that didn’t feature more than one soloist, and all performers delivered masterful improvisations on their respective instruments.

Valdés has performed with a variety of the most important modern jazz groups, from the band Irakere that he cofounded in 1972, to Herbie Hancock and Dizzy Gillespie.  He earned a Latin Grammy in 2009 for an album he released with his father, a well-known Cuban jazz musician in his own right; he has also earned a reputation as the greatest living Cuban jazz pianist, a distinction which has brought him to some of the greatest music halls in the world, including Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center.

To watch the man play the piano is to re-imagine the very meaning of the phrase.  At times he seemed to delicately caress the surface of the keys; at other times his hands made broad, sweeping strokes through the air, reminiscent of kneading dough.  He jabbed with three fingers on the same key, and moved with a lightning speed across all 88 keys in an instant.  The gleaming black piano was at times the bandleader, at others the bass player, at still others the prima donna on opening night.  Valdés could put a crowd on its collective feet unaccompanied, as he has done around the world on numerous evenings.

Luckily for those of us in Spaulding Auditorium that night, he didn’t have to.  Alarcón is not Jaco Pastorius, but when he played a haunting solo on the bass guitar with the full range of harmonics, he seemed to channel the departed genius, fulfilling the role of jazz bassist in an era where the instrument is not relegated to rhythm.  He also moved seamlessly between bass guitar and contrabass.  Castro displayed perhaps the most talent of the supporting musicians in his machine-gun drum kit solo, and for the rest of the evening was content to fill the hall with the splashes of traditional Caribbean symbols.  Bambolé and Robles were both masters of the African drums, turning percussion instruments into vehicles for melody and harmony.  The horn section took the backseat typical of Afro Cuban music and Caribbean jazz in general, but that did not diminish their obvious talent on display throughout the performance.

The history student in me could not help but appreciate the centuries of cultural interaction and change that produced the night’s performance.  Of Chucho and the six Afro Cuban Messengers, all but Castro were clearly authentic Afro Cubans in background, Castro possessing the straight grey hair and rosy sunburn of Hispanic ancestry.  But his music possessed the same mezcla as the other musicians – the tribal African rhythms, the Spanish flamenco and spice, the jazz soul of Harlem and the Cajun flair of New Orleans.  An island hanging in the Caribbean beneath Florida has produced such a dynamic music scene that it can seem exotic on any continent and in any time.  The performance had equal parts American poise, Latin soul, and African energy.

Additionally, the biographies provided for the performers paints an interesting picture of the culture of jazz music today.  Some readers may remember when Jazz meant danger, animalism, impolite, and even carnal music, and Cubans of any race, let alone a group of black men, would be the product of hazy clubs filled with stiff drinks and pliable souls.  Jazz wasn’t taught as much as it was lived, through a lifetime of traditions and experiences outside of polite circles.  

Of course, that all changed long ago.  An elderly white couple from New England will pay 80 dollars to listen to the streets of Havana, Brooklyn, or New Orleans – or at least what they might imagine those streets are like.  In reality, all of the Messengers are formally trained instrumentalists with years at Institutes and Academies of Art.  All were gifted, improvisational, and authentic – but, unlike Valdés, theirs was not the music of the Havana nightclubs, but rather of the American concert hall.  

Perhaps that is why, after all the changes in the world and in Jazz, and for all the impressive musical talent and ambition, a man like Valdés is still the leader amongst the top professionals.