Bebo Valdes: Bebo

[3 May 2007]

By Robert R. Calder

Given the number of keys on the standard piano, 88 seems a fair age for a pianist. Hank Jones also turned 88 in 2006, and his Cuban contemporary here is another rare pianist of the same vintage, way up there.

The producers of this set deserve high praise for having induced the father of the duly celebrated Chucho Valdes to record a solo set. Valdes Sr. is reported to have been worried about his ability to maintain a pulse without help from a rhythm player. Maybe more people should feel the same, especially if it enables them to keep things going the way Bebo does: thoroughly brilliantly.

Bebo differs from Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s fairly recent and highly commended CD of (almost entirely non-jazz) Latin American music, Solo, on BlueNote, first insofar as the music is all from Cuban sources, whereas Rubalcaba drew on a wider Latin American repertoire (plus one North American composition). Second, this set begins more tentatively, featuring a pianist of softer touch, several decades older, performing in chronological order a sequence of compositions from the Cuban historical repertoire. 

He opens with two of the Contradanzas composed in 1839 by the then 22-year-old Manuel Saumell Robredo, telling us in the CD’s printed notes that Robredo was half-Catalan, and a musical importation from Haiti was among the foundations he brought to Cuba. “Tu Sonrisa”, the second of these contradanzas—pieces with a different rhythm in each hand—Valdes confesses to playing more rapidly than is usual for that number.  Presumably he just thinks it sounds right that way, but the little gem which results doesn’t bely notions of parallels between Latin American and ragtime (not excluding the less publicised, downright superior New York school ignored during a childish infatuation with Scott Joplin: for instance Luckey Roberts’s “Spanish Venus”).

While the first of two rhythmically simpler Danzas by Ignacio Cervantes (1847-1905), son of a German mother, and sometime a music student in Germany, alternates between in-tempo passages akin to Rifkin’s Joplin, and the late nineteenth century European piano music Joplin sought to emulate, the second reflects Bebo’s habit of adapting them to his own more modern idiom.

“La Bayamesa” (1918), unusually slow and non-virtuoso for a piano solo number, is melancholy with historical and patriotic associations. It begins a sequence of mostly slower numbers, though “La Bella Cubana” of José White, 1853, does pick up pace. There is a general feel of songs played on the piano for their melodies, Eduardo Sanchez de Fuentes’ 1892 “Tú” being caressed gradually into wider exploration of the keyboard. If you can’t sense the implicit rhythms, the performances might seem slight in their slow simplicity. But who else would play a set of numbers with so little display of technique?

Livelier syncopation resumes with the “Tres Lindas Cubanas”, Antonio Maria Romeu’s supplementation of a 1926 composition of Guillermo Castillo, apparently a prodigy of cross-rhythms when played by a band. The listener again has to catch the implicit rhythms. This is music which demands relaxation with attention, until the sudden perkiness of the first of three Ernesto Lecuona compositions, distinguished from its ragtime cousins by implied dance rhythms. Africa came in with Lecuona, says Bebo, but there are hints of North America in the second number. In “La Comparsa”, the right hand dances over a left hand ostinata, another song-like item Bebo concludes with an improvisation.

When Bebo gets to his own “Oleaje”, its all flowing runs, and there are even faint hints of Art Tatum runs in “Cuba Linda”.  On some titles his fingers get little physical exercise, but here a very considerable technique is obvious (not a word to be applied to many aspects of this recording).

On We Could Make Such Beautiful Music Together, the duets with the Uruguayan Federico Britos, who worked in Cuba forty years ago and has been with the Miami Symphony, with Charlie Haden and with his own Cuban ensemble, aren’t notable for presto items. Britos has a huge tone, not made for fast or curly music, and maybe not quite enough for most purposes here.

On the Puerto Rican Ellingtonian Juan Tizol’s “Bakiff”, Britos phrases the theme beautifully, likewise on “My One and Only Love”, where Bebo is the star with a rhythmic sparkle, Britos doing a beautiful slow motion Grappelli. “(La) Rosita” was a Ben Webster ballad feature, and for all the liveliness of the piano accompaniment and solo, there’s a 1920s feel to Britos’s violin line, and eventually Bebo’s plan. Likewise “Noche Azul”.

“Someone to Watch Over Me” has a lovely piano intro and accompaniment; likewise Bill Evans’s “Waltz for Debbie”, at some length before Britos comes in improvising. I just keep pining for, well, Bob Barnard! Readers who don’t know him are missing out on one of the great lyricists of jazz, whom I saw years ago at a European jazz festival, and the lip of one of the great Count Basie saxophonists curled in utter contempt at the audience’s failure to erupt with the rapture that great Australian cornetist’s solos demanded.

Which is not to deny that Britos is a consummate violinist, but square in his phrasing when doing everything nonetheless beautifully. Like his solo opening to “Claudia” and the reprise at the end. In some respects he’s faultless, and if you want to hear the melody of Piazzolla’s “Adios Nino” expounded, you could do no better. He takes his time though, and Bebo is just so much more interesting throughout.

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