Live: Chucho Valdés walks among us in Chapel Hill

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Chucho Valdés
Memorial Hall, Chapel Hil
Tuesday, Nov. 27

Looking relaxed in a turtleneck with its long sleeves pushed up and a Kangol cap worn in B-boy style, 71-year-old pianist Chucho Valdés revealed himself to be at the height of his powers Tuesday night in Chapel Hill’s Memorial Hall. He led a young, percussion-heavy quintet that represents the cream of Cuba’s next-generation sidemen. All of the backing musicians reside in Cuba and perform and record regularly with the island’s premiere artists, such as top arranger and flutist Orlando “Maraca” Valle, Buena Vista Social Club diva Omara Portuondo, and dance band-of-the-moment Havana D’Primera. Valdés moved from Cuba to Spain two years ago to be near his father, another legend of Cuban piano, Bebo Valdés.

Affording a welcome break from the usual Latin jazz blowing sessions, there were no horns in this all-rhythm lineup, which consisted of Yaroldy Abreu Robles on congas, Rodney Barreto on drumset, Dreiser Durruthy Bombalé on batá drums/vocals, and Gaston Joya on electric and upright bass. (If it’s horns you’re after, look to Valdés’ other ensemble: the Art Blakey-styled Afro-Cuban Messengers.)

To a pianist, the appeal of playing orchestra to your very own rhythm section seems obvious, yet I had to ask, at a post-concert meet and greet: Why use this format over any other?

“Africano,” came Valdés’ cogent reply. Not Afro-Cuban, mind you, although the evening was rife with references to music of the Antilles, as well as Europe and North America. Nope, this was Africa in the New World talking.

Indeed, the evening’s rhythm-based experiments never abandoned a steady groove once it had been established, although the ensemble might blindfold it and spin it around in dizzying fashion. Rather than abruptly changing meters, the band played games of ellipses, then recaptured the rhythmic drive forward. In this manner, drummer Rodney Barreto could take even a 4/4 rock beat—pretty simple stuff compared to Cuban rhythms—and create a rambunctiously witty solo by dropping in and out, leaving whole bars empty between his attacks. In this way, the quintet showed the audience how Cuban musicians hear rhythm: always pulsing, even in the silence.

Valdés seemed intent on the upper register all evening. Sometimes the right hand worked solo, but frequently was accompanied by the left hand’s rhythmic vamps. Valdés could switch that up, too, for a caranaval-esque effect, knocking out low melodies with the left hand while tinkling shells with the right. Valdés gave each tune unexpected modulations of tone and mode, from Asian evocations to funky boogaloo, Russian march to music box lullaby, Mozart minuet to 3 a.m. piano bar, Southern gospel to Afro-Cuban orisha.

The tour-de-force moment came right on time with the final number, a powerful blues that was a showpiece for Valdés’ chameleon-like emotional and stylistic range. He hugged his musicians for the curtain call, and then a brief retreat gave way to an all-out, timba-style dance number that brought fans to the edge of the stage. All is well when a musical colossus like Valdés continues to walk among us, nourished by the next generation of Cuban musicians, and leaving giant footprints in his wake.

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