Known as a virtuoso, Chucho Valdes put his vast array of skills on display Wednesday night at Zellerbach Hall, fusing Cuban jazz, funk, and a little bit of Bach over the course of his performance.
Valdes began the evening with his calling card: the montuno-laden Cuban rhythms pulled straight from a Havana cafe. He played three more songs of this style — including two from his 2003 album New Conceptions — over the course of his performance, but they felt rote in comparison to the almost-soul flair that inspired the evening’s other songs. Chucho himself became most animated — legs bouncing, body swaying — on a heavily swung cover of All Blues, a tune best known to pianists for Bill Evans feathery touch.
But Valdes and his bandmates banged their way through it with straight, bluesy jazz of gut-busting velocity and volume. Valdes switched Evans’ right hand line (the parallel thirds on the original Kind of Blue recording) to his left, maintaining a level of faithfulness to the original take while freeing his right hand — which flashed up and down the keyboard so quickly his ring blurred like a late night photograph of a firecracker — to indulge in the blues licks everyone enjoys.
It was on these departures from the Cuban sound — which Valdes has been playing for so many years he barely looks at the keyboard when performing it — that he sounded best. Valdes, an artist from a decidedly anti-Monkian school who sometimes plays twenty notes when ten would suffice, seemed invigorated by playing the funk sound. It was as if it were a welcome distraction from his Latin jazz, which he knows his audiences expect him to play but, eh, well, he’s kinda bored of it.
Although undeniably the focus of the evening, Valdes was more than ably supported by his fantastic trio of percussionists. On the drum kit, Rodney Barreto held the quintet together with funk lines heavily laden with closed high hat hisses and a tight snare drum. Yaroldy Robles, easily the shortest member of what otherwise has a legitimate claim as the tallest band in jazz (the others are well over six foot), harmonized solos on an exquisitely tuned set of five congas. And Dreiser Bombale, a slender, long-armed man who specializes in the bata drum — a hydra of an instrument that has six different striking surfaces — energized the band and audience with his antics.