Cuba is impacting on jazz in a big way just now. Not since the days of Machito and Dizzy Gillespie, or Mongo Santamaria and the adoption of the bongos as beatnik fashion accessory, have so many people been exposed to the marriage of Mambo and modernism of which this performance is a very sophisticated example. Of course both traditions have much in common—Afro-Latin polyrhythms and African-American syncopation draw on essentially the same source. But there is something about the melodic charm of Cuban song that seems to greatly broaden the appeal of contemporary improvised music. Chucho Valdes is a demanding and highly complex pianist. Were it not for his adaptations of the folk forms of his homeland it is unlikely his playing would be appreciated outside a small coterie of aficionados. Crowd pleaser and extrovert that Valdes is, he remains nonetheless quintessentially a jazzman, part of a long and an honourable line.
His relationship to that lineage is often remarked upon. What is interesting is how disparate are the names that crop up regularly when critics try to capture Valdes wide-ranging style. To take just the liner notes to this concert—Bud Powell,Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner, Art Tatum and even Cecil Taylor all get (justifiably) cited. Just to muddy the waters I will add three further figures—Abdullah Ibrahim, Louis Gottschalk and James P.Johnston. Valdes’ work has much in common with the fusion of African and jazz sensibilities that Ibrahim has been pioneering for a long time now. The two sound nothing alike but a similar aesthetic guides them both. There is also, consciously or not, a definite similarity, in quieter moments, to the work of Gottschalk, a nineteenth century composer from New Orleans whose mixture of French and Caribbean styles mark him as an early spiritual ancestor. Harlem legend Johnston’s command of the whole piano finds a distinct echo in Valdes’ technique, which is muscular and rooted in a folk form—as was Stride.
The point is not that Valdes is simply a distillation of other influences, still less that he is a mere copyist, but that he should be seen as part of the mainstream history of the piano. He adds his own contribution to that history but particularly aligns himself to the wing of that art form where an urban and urbane sensibility works on a well absorbed popular form—be it folk, blues or Latin.Valdes is not to be regarded as some exotic, novelty act. In fact, on the evidence of this magisterial performance, his should be a name near the top of any jazz fan’s list of great contemporary keyboard stars.
Having made records both with big band and in a small group setting, the time must have appeared right to give an unadorned solo concert. Seventy minutes is a big gap to fill but the man is up to it—with a little, one suspects, to spare. By now you have guessed the content—a series of mostly Cuban songs explored and re-threaded through a number of jazz styles.The basic tunes are all attractive in themselves but individual compositions are less important than the overall sound. This can be crudely characterised as a rumbling bass line, great percussive attack, dazzling runs and a return to the song structure just when the piece seems to be losing direction. A brief pause then off we go again, little quotes here, a nod to some past worthy there and a variety of moods and tones that keep you on your toes at all times. It is heady and very satisfying stuff.
This is not an easy-listening “dinner jazz” effort. The rhythmic pulse is there throughout and the music takes great risks—hence the Tyner-Taylor comparisons. Sometimes you do wish for a piece that stays contemplative throughout or alternatively one that swings at the same tempo for its duration. Valdes seems allergic to keeping either the same atmosphere or pace for any length of time. That perhaps suggests a showiness that may deter some—mind you, he does possess a talent well worth showing off. The typical selection, then, starts deceptively softly, goes agreeably berserk in the middle and ends up with a rolling, almost singalong return to the melody. Said format is as true of the opening number “A Mi Madre”, which seems to drop in on piano styles from every era, as it is of the closing tune, the very Cuban “La Negra Tomasa”. Songs you think you know like “Besame Mucho” or “El Manicero” (Peanut Vendor) turn into something strange and wonderful. Even “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is thrown into the mix and sounds as fitting and as logical as if it were a classic Merengue. On the other hand, the musicality of all the choices is such that you think you must have heard even the less well known titles somewhere before.
Solo concerts need a strong personal identity to be imprinted on the set. Virtuosity or competence is not enough. There is no one else to turn to if the playing gets a little flat. There are no such worries here. The character of Valdes and the rich musical heritage he has at his disposal shine brightly throughout. Often confined to the odd guest flourish (the recent Groove Collective album) or part of the fireworks of his own groundbreaking group Irakere, here he is literally centre stage and occupies that space with a presence that is just the right side of overbearing.
The classic and best-selling example of such a solo venture in the last generation was Keith Jarrett. It surprised many that such an uncompromising form as the long, unaccompanied, improvised performance could get a large audience. Jarrett managed it because the musical motifs were accessible and a persona was produced in the course of the playing. Though I can hardly think of two more different personalities than the introverted Jarrett and the expansive Cuban, this is, I think, also the case here. As all things Latin have found favour lately, a few more than usual might give this a go. If they are not frightened off in the first few minutes—it does feel a little wild, folks—then this album might just become as popular as those much loved Jarrett sets. I hope so because challenging as the music often is, the sheer vivacity and joy of the whole experience gives this disc a feel of carnival—with all the excess and extremes that term implies. Like Carnival, any fear of exhaustion is outweighed by the good times to be had.