The recent explosion of Cuban music in the United States, provoked by Wim Wenders's documentary film Buena Vista Social Club and a relaxation of the U.S. embargo on Cuban artists, has taken many joyful forms. For hardcore jazz fans, no one embodies that joy more than the extroverted pianist Jesús "Chucho" Valdes, who has dazzled American audiences in clubs, concert halls and at jazz festivals with his virtuosity, the vast reach of his influences and, most of all, the sheer exuberance of his playing. Recorded in 1998, Live at the Village Vanguard is the most vital of the five CDs he has recorded for Blue Note -- and not least because patrons at the most storied jazz club in New York gave Valdez the kind of welcome that befits a god arriving thirty years late, then continued to inspire him through the entirety of his weeklong gig.
A six-foot-six-inch giant with huge hands (he's a former point guard and first baseman), this 58-year-old dynamo combines a classical-music upbringing and a reverence for the Congolese and Nigerian roots of Afro-Cuban music with a voracious appetite for American jazz in all its forms: From the thunderous pianist McCoy Tyner, he says, he draws force; from Errol Garner and Bill Evans, he learned delicacy. In the oft-troubled exchanges between New York and Havana, he also picked up pieces of Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell and Cecil Taylor, reheated them in a native crucible of salsa, charanga and son, and emerged with a jazz style full of passion and fire. Valdez sees the piano as "a harmonic instrument of percussion," he says, but amid all the fury, he will insert a passage of Debussy here, a filigree of Evans-ish contemplation there, bold strokes of color throughout. He's an action painter, and the entire piano is his canvas. Said another way, Chucho has the breathtaking authority that jazz fans haven't heard since the legendary Art Tatum was breaking his fellow piano players' hearts on 52nd Street.
It has been more than 25 years since Valdes founded Irakere, the Afro-Cuban jazz-rock group whose rare appearances in El Norte are now the stuff of musical myth, but that group is now in the hands of his musician son. The father, an international star now, devotes himself to his inimitable jazz. The Vanguard date includes a seminal version of "My Funny Valentine" as heartbreaking as it is harmonically complex, a roaring original called "Anabis" that employs Afro-Cuban polyrhythms and thrashing melodic counterpoint to nearly overwhelming effect, and a tune called "To Bud Powell" that speaks of the days when Valdes listened to bootleg U.S. jazz records for inspiration. His collaborators -- Francisco Rubio Pampin on acoustic bass, Raul Pineda Roque on trap drums, Roberto Vizcaino Guillot on congas and batas and Valdes's sister, Mayra Caridad Valdes, singing the occasional vocal -- remain hand-in-glove with the master throughout.
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