Jazz Hands: Chucho Valdes reflects on his place among his jazz predecessors

Sebastian Yen/Staff

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For the uninitiated: Jazz, though underpinned by a malleable lattice of chords and rhythms, relies heavily on improvisation and invention. But originality is not always the prerequisite for inspiration. Often, performers call upon the genius of their forebears and insert snippets of past work into their performance.

“Those are invoked,” says Cuban pianist Chucho Valdes, “to recall the departure points for what we are doing today.”

In this respect, jazz stands alone in the pantheon of musical genres — nothing so seamlessly melds past with present. And much as an artist can compress 60 years of history into 60 seconds of music, so too is the artist himself prologue to his own present. He is an amalgamation of eras that defies linearity to make jazz something more like a continuum.

Take Chucho, for example. He is, of course, an artist in and of himself, one who has won five Grammys by melding traditional Cuban rhythms with jazz — considered “imperialist” in Cuba through his formative years as an artist — to produce some of the finest music of his generation. But he also stands in the context of the piano virtuoso, a mantle that has rested on but a few select shoulders.

Traces of his predecessors can be heard in Chucho’s music: The long left-hand strides of Fats Waller, the dazzling and dizzying lyric runs of Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson’s impeccable swing. But although Chucho has come to be accepted in this fold, his music begins farther south, embedded in the slick rhythms and rolling beats of Cuba.

He counts several notable Cuban masters as influences, including Peruchin — the consummate Cuban pianist, whose open orchestrations and broadly voiced montunos are splashed across much of Chucho’s playing — and Ernesto Lecuona, whose delicate touch comes out especially in Chucho’s solo work.

But Chucho’s greatest influence is undeniably his father, Bebo, with whom he won the 2010 Grammy Award for Best Latin Jazz Album, appropriately titled “Juntos Para Siempre.” The famous Cuban pianist and composer nurtured Chucho on music practically from the moment of his birth. From his first explorations on a keyboard at the age of 3, Chucho has never looked back, graduating from Havana’s Municipal Music Conservatory at 14 and leading his own group by the age of 15. In these years, he strove to create a uniquely Cuban jazz sound. “My first record I made with woodwinds, flutes and clarinets, avoiding the usual brass sound,” he says. “I found a different sound for flute and clarinet. It was a Latin Jazz ensemble instead of brass and woodwinds.”

But Chucho radically changed tact — in the process revolutionizing Cuban jazz — when he founded Irakere in 1973. “With Irakere, I changed all the previous concepts underlying Cuban music and managed to put together a brass and woodwind band,” he says. “Saxophonists Paquito D’Rivera and Carlos Averhoff” — in their own right internationally famous musicians — “played flute, and I also found a good combination mixing woodwinds and brasses.” This departure gained Chucho international fame and, in 1979, his first Grammy.

After that initial success, he continued his experimentation, exploring the sounds of symphony orchestras and then electronic instruments up through the 1990s. Since then, he has returned to his acoustic roots and smaller bands — “A quartet or quintet is the group size I prefer the most,” he says — most notably through his Afro-Cuban Messengers, with which he won his most recent Grammy, again for Best Latin Jazz Album, in 2011.

Although most of his work has occurred in the context of a group, it is impossible to overstate Chucho’s stature among jazz performers as an individual. Very few performers can make a piano seem small, yet Chucho devours both Steinway and stage with his size and sound. Whether performing solo or with other musicians, he plays all parts of the song: bass lines, melodies, chords, everything. The music revolves around him and his enormous tone — nary a key among the 88 goes untouched over the course of a single song, let alone an entire concert.

That is where Chucho stands today: at the center of jazz’s orbit. But though he may be peerless among pianists, he never forgets his place on the continuum. In a medium that values reinvention as much as invention, where citing Brubeck can count as original composition, Chucho builds his legacy by quoting and composing in equal measure.

 

EVENT DETAILS: 

What: The Chucho Valdes Quintet 

When: Wednesday, Nov. 7, 8 p.m.

Where: Zellerbach Hall

Other Details: By tickets through Cal Performances

 

 

Contact Jordan at [email protected]