Cuban pianist Chucho Valdés hasn't exactly wanted for publicity in the last few years. A founding member of the Latin jazz supergroup Irakere, Valdés has recently signed to Blue Note Records and even been hailed as a master performer by the New York Times during a historic 1999 engagement at the legendary Village Vanguard.
And yet, for all the attention, Valdés is still enormously underrated, a point revealed by his stunning Live at the Village Vanguard, culled from those same April 1999 shows. Valdés is always tagged as a Latin jazz pianist, a label that, while mostly accurate, doesn't begin to do his astoundingly broad talent justice. Valdés' previous release, Briyumba Palo Congo, hinted at his versatility, turning up the heat on a Latin jazz version of "Caravan" while showing him getting lushly romantic on Gershwin's "Embraceable You." But where Congo was hot, Live at the Village Vanguard is positively volcanic, capturing one of the most incredible performers ever to touch the ivories in full flight.
Valdés' Cuban roots give much of Village Vanguard its seductive sway -- the version of "My Funny Valentine" rendered as a beautiful danzón, the delicious son montuno of Arsenio Rodríguez's "Como Traigo la Yuca." But about four minutes into the scorching opener, "Anabis," Valdés' accompanying quartet drops out, and it becomes clear this is no ordinary Latin jazz artist. The next few minutes of solo piano seem to encompass the entire history of the instrument -- from dazzling contrapuntal runs that would make Glenn Gould blush to lush chordal harmonies that recall Debussy to crashing montuno riffs to a barrelhouse boogie-woogie interlude. Valdés does it again in "Punto Cubano," building from what is essentially a two-chord vamp to spin off incredibly dexterous runs that echo Havana but also New Orleans, New York, Paris, and everywhere in between.
Valdés' masterful versatility makes us understand that Cuban music encompasses basically everything -- from the African rhythms brought by the Yoruba slaves to the European instruments and harmonies contributed by the Spanish colonizers, a combination that helped spark the development of jazz when many Cuban musicians migrated to New Orleans before the turn of the century. It's fitting that Live at the Village Vanguard is, so far, Valdés' crowning achievement, since, over its 60-plus years, the club has produced historic live albums by jazz greats ranging from John Coltrane to Bill Evans to Dizzy Gillespie. In the same way, "To Bud Powell," Valdés' ten-minute ode to the bebop piano master, serves the same purpose. While the track is a moving tribute to an obvious idol of Valdés', it also demonstrates that he needn't look up too far when speaking of that jazz icon. Sooner or later Valdés himself will be recognized as belonging to the same pantheon.
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