This October, Cuban pianist Bebo Valdes will celebrate his 90th birthday. Valdes is best-known to US jazz fans from his star turn in the documentary Calle 54, which captured so many great Latin Jazz players in a New York studio. Older folks may know that Valdes was the leader of the famous pre-Castro Havana nightclub, the Tropicana, during the 1950s. More recently, Valdes has been living in Sweden and Spain.
It’s a somewhat rare treat, then, to hear this exquisite musician in the basement level Carnegie Hall of jazz, New York’s Village Vanguard. Valdes is, perhaps, not a jazz musician proper, but rather, a Cuban popular musician from a time of rich overlap with jazz — the man who helped turn the “mambo” into an elegant art form. If you’re no expert on Cuban music, just think Ricky Ricardo from I Love Lucy but with a piano before him, and way less “Babalooooooo!”
This program was recorded three years ago (though this is its first domestic US release) with bassist Javier Colina. It mainly consists of classic Cuban tunes (some by Valdes himself) played with an ambling ease. The effect is very much like listening to a great storyteller take his time with good material — you sit back and enjoy the telling even when the stories are not bodice-rippers.Many of the songs have lovely melodies like “Aquellos Ojos Verdes”, and a shot at playing variation is given to both Valdes and Colina. They don’t “solo” on the tunes the way jazz musicians do, exactly — they don’t spin thrilling new melodies based on the chord changes. Rather, Valdes plays arrangements, riff variations, and ornamentations that may bring to mind the great Art Tatum (though, of course, without his dazzling technical command) and that bring the rhythmic pleasure of jazz without the same walking-a-tightrope quality. When Colina solos, Valdes is a huge pleasure as an accompanist, underscoring melody with the classic repeated vamp-patterns of Cuban tradition.
In a few places, Valdes and Colina play more like jazz musicians, with lovely results. “Bebo’s Blues” reveals Valdes playing a more traditionally linear improvisation, while Colina walks the bass. After short solos, Valdes works out some old-style stride all by himself. The Jerome Kern tune “Yesterdays” also gets a relatively straight treatment, with Valdes outlining the theme alone at first. In these tunes, you can hear how the great American music has always been part of Valdes’s art — he sounds like Ellington in the way he plays jazz piano: like an orchestra, rather than a key-activated trumpet.
Most out of Valdes’s usual zone is “Waltz for Debby”, the impossibly lyrical song that Bill Evans made famous in his first great Village Vanguard recording. Valdes knows the tune, but his reading of it suggests a certain impatience with Evans’s chord changes. He rushes certain sections, and he literally crashes through the progressions at other points, even as Colina comes in to set a steady pace. When they lock in, there is a nifty bounce to the song, but the main feeling comes from Valdes urging rhythmic excitement onto the whole thing.
The bulk of Live does not have to force the rhythmic issue, however. On the Cuban material, Valdes seems like a cork bobbing on the surface — light, but still syncopated, easy to listen to, but also dedicated to a certain archival mission. He is essentially an old-fashioned player, rooted in Cuban forms from the ’40s, and jazz playing from earlier still. This makes his playing charming, but hardly stale — American ears haven’t exactly been worn out on this kind of music. Compared to his son, pianist Chucho Valdes who founded Irakere and has a more modern sensibility, the elder Valdes seems more out of left field for not sounding like Eddie Palmieri or Bud Powell.
Charming, light, cantankerous, relaxed, impatient — Bebo Valdes’ music can be all these things. And from man approaching 90, it’s a menu of emotion to be admired and enjoyed.