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October 2002

Chucho Valdes
Fantasia Cubana: Variations on Classical Themes
Blue Note Records

Records on which jazz artists interpret classical tunes often fail because the artists approach the European art music with too much reverence, leaving the tunes mostly untouched by jazzy invention. Chucho Valdes, however, is not a man to flinch at playing with tradition, and on his album Fant sia Cubana: Variations on Cuban Themes he mixes golden oldies by Fryderyk Chopin, Ernesto Lecuona, Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel with complementary originals to create a sound both classical and Chucho.

In Valdes' hands, Ravel's "Pavane Pour une Infante Defunte" becomes even more golden and wistful with rhythmic dislocations and decorative showers of notes, while Chopin's "Waltz in A Minor" strays far from the original with a grand introduction, free treatment of the melody and rhythm, and stormy interludes that grow naturally out of Chopin's harmonies. Lecuona gets the closest observation, with three consecutive versions of his "La Comparsa" each teasing out one strand of the original. Valdes illustrates the depth of the melodic and harmonic resources in each of these works as he transforms them, showing them proper jazz reverence by making them his own for a little while.

Valdes' originals, of course, spring from rhythms unavailable to Debussy or Ravel, and thus provide an effectively spiky contrast. But pieces like the title track and "Tumbao" show the lyrical influence of the classical masters represented here along with their Cuban dance roots, while even the percussive "Wakamba" here seems to have something in common harmonically with Chopin's more rugged Scherzos.

Besides showing how Valdes can influence classical, then, Fant sia Cubana also shows how classical has influenced Valdes, making for a unified statement and, not incidentally, thoroughly interesting listening.

Originally published in October 2002
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