September 28, 2007

Music, Not Politics, Moves Chucho Valdes

Yahoo! News. Will Weissert, Associated Press Writer. September 28, 2007.

VARADERO, Cuba - The comparsa drums are thundering, but it's the piano driving the beat with a furious array of improvisations that blend raw Afro-Cuban rhythms with the toe-tapping, head-bobbing beats of straight jazz.

Suddenly the hulking figure behind the piano shifts slightly, flicking his fingers in new directions. The music of George Gershwin, as polished and uplifting as an evening at Carnegie Hall, fills the night.

From rumba to "Rhapsody in Blue" without missing a beat. Classic Chucho.

"I'm just a hick from Quivican," says Jesus Dionisio "Chucho" Valdes, Cuba's storied jazz pianist, grinning at the crowd packed into a small but spiffy municipal auditorium in this resort city of sparkling surf and powder-white beaches.

His modesty fools no one. The man from Quivican, a rural town south of Havana, began playing the piano by ear at 3 and is now considered one of the world's greats. He has recorded or contributed to 55 albums and counting _ five of which won Grammys.

"Jazz is recreating without repeating. We play the same music, but we never, never sound the same," Valdes told The Associated Press while headlining the recent Varadero Jam Session, the latest incarnation of the annual Cuban jazz festivals he founded in 1992.

In an interview hours before taking stage, Valdes folded his towering frame into a plush chair and pulled off his trademark beret. Soft-spoken, he paused to consider each answer carefully while still finding time to wink behind his spectacles at women passing by.

"Now I'm a mature musician," said Valdes, who is a few weeks shy of his 66th birthday but looks 20 years younger. "Like wine, I age well."

Valdes' specialty is intermingling genres, dabbling in and out of rumba, jazz, classical, salsa, blues and ballads. But he is also a composer and band leader, often springing up during concerts and using his left hand to direct as many as 14 performers all around him while his right keeps pounding the piano.

"He is very much a pyrotechical virtuoso," said pianist and bandleader Arturo O'Farrill, son of famed Cuban band leader Chico O'Farrill, who eventually settled in New York and became a key figure in the birth of Afro-Latin jazz in the late 1940s and early '50s.

"For some people this spells the end of solo jazz piano, which is supposed to be about the art of restraint, delicacy, style," said O'Farrill, who was invited by Valdes to perform at the Havana Plaza Jazz Festival in 2002 and 2005. "I think that in some ways those people don't understand that technique can be as important a contribution to an art form as profundity, and in fact virtuosity is in its own right a profundity."

Valdes began studying classical piano in the 1950s, when his father Bebo, a legendary jazz pianist in his own right, was an orchestra director at Havana's famed Tropicana nightclub. The younger Valdes was inspired by African-rooted rhythms while also drawing from such American jazz piano greats as Bill Evans.

"The question for us is does Chucho swing? Does he communicate both in his jazz and in his Latin playing a sense of swing?" asked O'Farrill, who leads the New York-based Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra. "I think you can place him very high not only among Cuban musicians but among musicians the world over who know that the beat is a very large entity."

When Fidel Castro's revolution toppled dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959, some of its supporters viewed jazz as imperialistic and began disrupting shows. Bebo soon left Cuba, eventually settling in Sweden.

Chucho stayed and became the leader of the celebrated fusion band Irakere, which wowed large U.S. audiences during the Newport Jazz Festival in 1978. A pair of his bandmates, Paquito D'Rivera and Arturo Sandoval, left Cuba and found fame in the United States.

Chucho himself made albums for U.S. label Blue Note and stayed in America for long stretches, but he also remained close to his roots. One of his many homes is in Havana and he continues to notify island authorities of his whereabouts while crisscrossing the globe for concerts.

Chucho ducked questions about what might happen in Cuba after Castro is gone.

"I only talk about music," he said.

But he famously joined other Cuban artists and intellectuals in signing a letter supporting Castro against international criticism after Cuba jailed 75 government critics in 2003. And Chucho also made a soon-to-be-released album with Cuban folk singer Pablo Milanes, a Castro confidant.

Chucho said he and Bebo, 89, are best friends and talk on the phone constantly, but avoid some topics.

"We never talk about politics. Ever," he said. "Everything else, we talk about as family and everyone can think what they want."

Father and son played together on "Calle 54," a 2000 Latin jazz documentary, and recorded their first piano duet album in July. They even hit the road together for 24 shows in Spain.

"More than anything it's emotional," Valdes said of playing with his dad. "You remember the emotions, the things that you've always done together and will do again, but you're recording it all."

The pair have planned another eight-show tour of Spain in November.

"My father was my maestro. No, he IS my maestro still," Chucho said.

Though Bebo isn't likely to return to Cuba, Chucho said he'd like to keep playing with his father wherever they can.

"Is music stronger than politics? I don't know," he said. "But we are going to make music."

Associated Press Writer Charles J. Gans in New York contributed to this story.

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