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Music | Latin Jazz

The Chucho Valdés Experience

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On December 6, 2012, after three months on the road performing in 35 cities in Europe and the Americas, The Chucho Valdés Quintet wrapped up their 2012 world tour just as they started- with high energy, sophistication and style.

When you’re a multiple Grammy Award winner who has recorded over eighty albums, performed with countless jazz masters, including Herbie Hancock, Dizzy Gillespie, Wynton Marsalis and Chick Corea, – when you’re hailed as “the dean of Latin jazz” and “one of the world’s great virtuosic pianists” by The New York Times, and your career is still on fire after four decades, – you not only choose the best musicians in the world to work with, but you also perform in the world’s most prestigious and breath-taking cultural venues. Chucho’s 2012 tour included venues such as Teatro Nacional, Distrito Catredral, San José, Costa Rica , MIMO – Mostra Int’l em Olindo, Brasil, Teatro Cervantes Málaga, Spain, (with special guest Concha Buika), The Laura Turner Concert Hall, Shermerhorn Symphony Center, Nashville TN, The Kroerner Concert Hall, Royal Conservatory of Music, Toronto ON,CA, and Carnegie Hall, NY, just to name a few.

Sitting in the second row, waiting for the show to begin, I couldn’t help but think, that having traveled together to all those places, and having played so closely night after night, Chucho and his band were about to “blow it out” and deliver a truly special performance for their final show! What a treat it was too, to be in the audience in such an intimate and equally exceptional venue here in Washington, D.C. – The Historic Sixth & I Synagogue.

Playing to a packed audience of  just 800 inside this beautifully restored building, Chucho and his Afro-Cuban virtuosos took us on a musical journey filled with high energy, intricate rhythms, and soft soulful ballads, making sure that each one of us in the audience was on board for the ride.

Their first song started out with Chucho playing a happy and complex melody on his own. Then, Angel Gaston Joya Perellada on bass came in to give it foundation, followed by Rodney Barreto on drums and then Yaroldi Robles on Conga. The sound seemed a little off but that would soon change as the sound engineer made his adjustments. This happens at every concert regardless of the band or the venue because when the house fills with people, the acoustics change.

The second song featured Drieser Bambole on Bata and Vocals, and that’s when we met the band! As soon as they got their groove going, Chucho gave the nod and the solos began. As if he wanted us to know that we were going on a musical journey now, but to do so, we needed to first meet and get to know the pilots. So, one by one each musician showcased their chops in four mind blowing solos as they freely fed from the audience’s energy and gave it to their instruments, which pumped it back out to us until the entire place was gyrating and swinging. With another nod from Chucho, he brought the song back for a landing.

By the fourth song, the sound mix was perfect, and you could see and feel the sounds that were coming from each musician, and how jointed they were with one another. Now you realized that these were some “bad boys” on stage. World class talents! I imagined Chucho’s message here. “Now that you have gotten to know the boys, it’s time to step it up”.  And, that they did in a high energy piece that showcased Chucho’s incredible talent.

The next tune without pause was “Take Five” by the late Dave Brubeck who had sadly just passed away the day before. The place erupted with applause as we enjoyed Brubeck’s famous melody done in an Afro-Cuban rhythm followed by parts of another Brubeck tune “Blue Ronda A La Turk”.  This was obviously an unrehearsed jam session that had never been done by them on stage, and will probably never be done again in that way. Chucho brought the jam session down to him and the piano, and then slowly and softly came to a close. Silence falls and Chucho leans over to the mike and simply says “Brubeck”. All at once, the place explodes in applause. At the same time, the band comes back in on Chucho’s nod, and continues the “Take Five” jam session.

Now Rodney Barreto on drums and Yaroldi Robles on Conga take the lead with a son clave beat and Drieser Bambole on Bata comes in. It is now impossible for anyone to stay still. The only person in the building who is stoic and calm is Chucho. The energy apex is his hands on the piano, the rest of the band members are sweating and playing as one. No doubt enjoying himself, smiling at his band members, he gives a nod and a facial expression, and the song just stops. The audience takes a sudden collective gasp of air and roars back an applause attempting to match the energy they just received.

The next song was a ballad that Chucho wrote for his mother. He introduced it by saying a few words about her and what she meant to him. Then he said, “She is gone, and I wrote this…for Pilar”. It was a beautiful soft ballad with a bass accompaniment and soft drums and congas at the end. It was very nicely done. It also allowed the audience to take a breath because the rest of the show went back up high octane.

The rest of the show was like a party. We boogied with a blues tune that showcased Chucho’s Oscar Peterson-like speed, and danced in our seats to the band’s “descarga” to just a few songs from Chucho’s latest album, the Grammy award winning “Chucho’s Steps”. Most of the songs, however, were new from his untitled album scheduled to be released in the spring of this year.

After two encores and a long standing ovation with a Cuban flag draped around him by an audience member, I was convinced that Chucho has never been better.  I watched Chucho perform in 1999 and 2002 and although these performances were spectacular, I don’t remember him being this great on stage.

At 71, he is at his peak and shows no signs of slowing down and his new compositions for his new album are fresh and modern. As he’s done throughout his career, Chucho works with hot young artists to keep pushing the envelope and leading a path of  exploration in Jazz. He is truly one of the greats and plays to adoring audiences all over the globe.

In 1979 Chucho and his band Irakere was asked to perform at the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island, and the Montreux Jazz festival in Switzerland. It was the first time the North American Latin Jazz audiences had heard this sound from Cuba. To the world’s good fortune, both performances were captured on tape by Columbia Records, and the following year, “Live at Newport” won a Grammy award for Best Latin Recording. Chucho has remained a fixture as a Latin Jazz Icon ever since.

I had the honor to meet Chucho and say a quick hello to him back stage after the show. In Spanish, I told him how much  I enjoyed the performance and how tight he and his band sounded together. He smiled and nodded and responded humbly ” Si apretadito”.

Chucho kicks off his 2013 world tour in Russia on February 16th. He has one U.S. show booked so far, – New York on June 21, 2013, with more to follow. We are all looking forward to the release of his new album so we can recount this amazing performance, which capped off his 2012 tour.

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