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December 2003

Chucho Valdes
New Conceptions
Blue Note Records

Cuban pianist Chucho Valdes has remarkable facility as a soloist, accompanist and writer, and what's even more amazing is that he routinely delivers these fantastic statements while playing some of the world's most rhythmically intricate music. New Conceptions takes the listener on another exciting excursion through a host of genres, among them traditional Cuban forms, straightahead jazz, even classically influenced material. Valdes romps through Ernesto Lecuona's "La Comparsa" like it was a children's tune, unencumbered by the piece's twisting, shifting tempos and beats. The same holds true for Miles Davis' "Solar" and the DePaul/Raye number "You Don't Know What Love Is." One's a hardbop staple, the other a pre-rock anthem, but each gets deconstructed and reworked with Valdes steadily blending tune fragments, block chords, octave leaps, pedal gimmicks and percussive snippets into heady, coherent solos.

While Valdes is an excellent interpreter, he's even more unpredictable as a composer. Such pieces as "Los Guiros," "Nanu" and "Sin Clave Pero Con Swing" juggle, exploit and explode multiple elements and devices through odd time signatures, rampant tempo changes and idiomatic leaps within arrangements, sometimes jumping from Latin to bop or from gospel influences back to jazz. Valdes' piano talents are so amazing it's hard to not overlook his companions. But tenor saxophonist Irving Acao's solo on "Solar" rivals Valdes', and percussionist Yaroldy Abreu Robles, bassist Lazaro Rivero and trap drummer Ramses Rodriguez somehow manage to avoid being obliterated by Valdes' keyboard flurries or sabotaged by the continual, sometimes abrupt pattern changes. The most traditional Afro-Cuban tunes are "Pancho" and, ironically, "Homenaje a Ellington," where Valdes honors a personal hero by using his music as a starting point for bombastic piano lines offset by percolating textures from a seven-member percussion ensemble and chorus.

Originally published in December 2003
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