If Duke Ellington was born in Havana, he'd be Bebo Valdés
Simply put, pianist, composer and arranger Bebo Valdés is a genius. The quality of his many talents puts him in the same league with artists like Duke Ellington. Reviewing his music is a humbling experience. One can only bow and pay tribute to the maestro. At 87 years of age, 86 when he made these recordings, Valdés is at the top of his game and playing with an all-star band. As one might expect from the man some have credited with inventing mambo back in the ‘40s, Valdés knows how to swing. He also knows how to stop on a dime and make time stand still.
The first disc, “Suite Cubana” (“Cuban Suite”), consists of a semi-autobiographical, instrumental eight-song cycle about the growth and development of Cuban jazz based on his first hand experiences. Valdés composed the piece between 1992 and 1997 as a tribute to his wife Rose Marie, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, close friend Israel Lopez “Cachao,” his famous pianist son Jesus “Chucho” Valdés, and other intimates. The suite purposely recreates a theatrical experience and has an opening fanfare and a melodious conclusion. Think of it as an imaginary play for the mind. One sits back in a Havana nightclub to watch the floor show. The program commences as the music swells. The curtain rises and one becomes transported as the drums, timbales, bongos and congas set the rhythms bouncing. The guitar and bass keep a steady beat. Then the horns start to blare, and there are plenty of horns: four trombones, four trumpets, and four saxophones. The suite is in full swing and it’s only the beginning.
But don’t forget the piano, whose voice pops through again and again to smartly direct and comment on the action. For example, on “Nocturno en batanga” Valdés plays the melody as various orchestra members take turns riffing over the top: first Paquito D’Rivera on alto sax, followed by Juan Pablo Torres on trombone, Joe Gonzalez on bongos and Milton Cardona on congas. Valdés then shifts the melody, and the tune gently fades out.
The aforementioned tune follows the batanga rhythm, as its title indicates. Valdés provides information about the various tunes, such as the Cuban rhythm style played on each track, in the instructive 52-page booklet that accompanies the discs. The package also includes a 22-minute bonus making of DVD documentary, New York Notebook, that features interviews with Valdés and footage of the he pianist reminiscing while walking the streets of Manhattan, interacting with the musicians, conducting the groups, and playing piano.
The standout track on “Suite Cubana” is the lyrical “Copla No. 4”. Valdés does not offer any suggestions as to the title’s meaning, but he notes that he selected to quote Percy Faith’s “A Summer Place” in the middle of the tune because it was a hit during the time he was romancing his wife. “Copla No. 4” also incorporates musical allusions to the song “Guantanamera”, which again was popular during the same era, the early ‘60s. Valdés’ original composition conveys the zeal of one enchanted by the joy of life.
The second disc, “El Solar De Bebo” (“Bebo’s Place”), features Valdés jamming with a smaller line-up of musicians in a Manhattan studio, an octet to be exact. D’Rivera, Torres, Gonzalez, and Cardona are still present, but there’s only one sax, one trombone, and one trumpet. The sound is breezier and less formal than the other disc. While “Suite Cubana” evoked a club atmosphere, “El Solar De Bebo” comes across as the sound of the streets. One can hear the traffic noises in the percussion, conversations exchanged in the horns, footsteps in the stringed cadences, while Valdés’ piano seems to be overheard from some bar across the road. Except when the individuals take their solos—then the scene shifts into something else, like when one meets a friend when walking across town. You listen to him or her talk and focus on that person before going onward.
The most beautiful song here is Valdés’ ballad for his daughter, “Miriam”. In the liner notes he says Miriam is “a gifted pianist and piano teacher in Havana”. Valdés opens the track with a 25 second solo that sets a muted mood of deep affection followed by D’Rivera doing a Benny Goodman-like take on clarinet. The other players gently chime in until the bridge, played as a solo by Valdés. He rapidly fingers the notes of the keyboard with a gentle, precise touch. Edgardo Miranda then replays the notes of the bridge on acoustic guitar. The others quietly join in as Miranda picks, followed by D’Rivera on clarinet again. He liltingly takes the listener to the close.
Every cut on both discs shows the depth and beauty of Valdés’ talent. Cuban jazz may not to be for everyone’s taste, but it would be hard to understand how anyone remotely interested in the genre would not be charmed by this package.