Arturo O’Farrill introduced the 88-year-old legend Bebo Valdes (pictured) by remarking on his astonishing energy and enthusiasm. O’Farrill also spoke movingly of how working with Bebo had reminded him of the spirit and energy of his late father, Chico O’Farrill. The latter, composer of the classic “Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite” and other orchestral jazz works, was one of several “spirits” evoked by this first U.S. performance of Bebo Valdes’s “Suite Cubana.” Another was that of trombonist Juan Pablo Torres, who passed away last year, and who can be heard on the recorded version of the “Suite Cubana,” and also on Bebo’s 1994 comeback release, Bebo Rides Again (Messidor). Finally, there is the spirit of the slave Cecilio, who cared for Bebo’s grandfather in his last years, and whose memory inspired “El Son de Cecilio,” in which the opening theme serves as the leitmotif for the entire “Suite Cubana.”
Bebo de Cuba (Calle 54) is the collective title for the 2CD release that includes the orchestral “Suite Cubana,” and the more relaxed El Solar de Bebo, a collection of Bebo’s compositions played by a smaller ensemble and inspired by the music Bebo heard in the solares, or patios, of Havana neighborhoods, where musical instruments are improvised from forks, spoons, and drawers.
The first part of the concert featured the tall, thin, slightly stooped Bebo on solo piano ranging over a medley of Cuban standards. When walking onstage, Bebo’s gait was somewhat shuffling. Otherwise, he wears his 88 years lightly, and when he sits at the piano or conducts the orchestra, he exudes a boyish joie de vivre.
The next segment of the concert featured a nonet playing tunes from El Solar de Bebo. The nonet included several members of the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra and special guests Edgardo Miranda on guitar, John Benitez on bass, and Bebo’s son, Rickard Valdes, on timbales. Many, but not all, of the musicians at Friday’s performance also play on the Bebo de Cuba release. A highlight of the concert was the mambo “Con Poco Coco,” recorded in 1952 and acknowledged to be one of the first recorded descargas. The tune is associated with Bebo’s years as a big-band leader in 1950s Havana. On the ballad “Rose Marie,” composed for Bebo’s Swedish wife—he has lived in Stockholm since 1963—Bebo generously allowed Arturo O’Farrill to play the piano part.
After a short intermission, the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra came onstage and performed their theme song, a blistering workout that included some ferocious exchanges between tenorists Mario Rivera and Ivan Renta. The remainder of the evening was devoted to the elegant and rhythmic “Suite Cubana” played by a 21-piece orchestra under the direction of Bebo. The “Suite Cubana” is composed of six parts, along with an intro and coda that Bebo calls “bow music,” as in bowing before and after a show. Think the theme song to I Love Lucy to get a sense of this “bow music.” Arturo O’Farrill played piano for the entire suite, except for “El Son de Cecilio,” which had Bebo on piano. While some listeners may have been initially disappointed by this, in truth, O’Farrill not only played beautifully, but his attack, which is less understated than Bebo’s, actually enhanced the suite’s latent beauty and majesty. Especially memorable solos were played by tenorist Mario Rivera, altoist Erika von Kleist (whose piquant playing drew the largest roar from the crowd), bass trombonist Douglas Purviance, baritonist Pablo Calogero and guitarist Edgardo Miranda. The rhythm section of Jimmy Delgado on bongos, Tony Rosa on congas, Rickard Valdes on timbales, Vince Cherico on drums and John Benitez on bass was crisp and tight throughout. On “Cachao, Creador del Mambo,” Benitez’s physical heft and muscular musicality did much to remind listeners of Bebo’s great friend and originator of the mambo, Israel “Cachao” Lopez.
Bebo’s music is highly refined, light, even delicate, but not in the sense of fragility. There were four trombonists in the lineup and times when a solo strained for effect and veered dangerously close to bombast and vulgarity. While these excesses were momentary, they made palpable the absence of trombonist Juan Pablo Torres, known for his emotive but always tasteful soloing.
In his Diccionario de la Musica Cubana, Helio Orovio writes that Bebo Valdes “es uno de los mas completes musicos que ha dado Cuba;” that is, Bebo is one of the most consummate musicians to have emerged from Cuba. This is saying a great deal, considering the richness of the Cuban musical tradition; a tradition whose spirit of rhythm, elegance, nostalgia and humor was on generous display at this historic premiere of “Suite Cubana.”