December 2003

Chucho Valdés: Everything’s New Again

How do you create something completely new using concepts that are thousands of years old? Check in with New Conceptions (Blue Note), the new release from pianist and composer Chucho Valdés to find out.

“The significance of the title is the new rhythmic approach in the percussion and the style of fusion of jazz and Afro-Cuban music,” Valdés says. “The percussion is much more polyrhythmic and is much more adventurous than percussion [in Latin jazz] these days.”

But is there is a contradiction in starting a CD called New Conceptions with a very old Cuban standard, “La Comparsa”? “No, it is quite logical,” Valdés says. “We are using the old tunes with the new rhythm formulas. What is important is our treatment of the percussion and the piano. It is what gives the new concept for our music.”

Valdes calls the approach part of an evolution of both his music and Afro-Cuban music. “These rhythms were started by Irakere [the band he led for many years] back in the ’70s for dance music that we called timba. It was a fusion of different rhythms, like African music and funk, with the Cuban son. Now these new conceptions are treating these rhythms differently resulting in a new way of playing and thinking.”

It all goes back to Africa, he says.

“African influence is in jazz and, of course, in the music of Afro-Cuba. The two lines of African diaspora unite in this music. For example [on the new disc] the song “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” that is an old jazz standard. It is treated with a batá rhythm but a different kind of batá rhythm. It is played in Afro-Cuban style but completely different.”

He cites another example from the disc, the last tune, “Homenaje a Ellington.”

“We do the first song, “Satin Doll” as cha cha cha,” he laughs. “Then we do the second part in the Cuban bolero style. Then “Caravan”—one of the first tunes in jazz that has un sabor Latino [Latin flavor]. We have to remember who wrote it, [longtime Ellington] trombonist Juan Tizol, who was Puerto Rican. He gave it sabor Latino. Then we go to a Cuban concept: the conga rhythm. The conga rhythm is a style used in carnivals and parades.”

Valdés credits his percussionists—Jorge Enrique Leyva Angulo, Vladimir Ramos Pestana, Hammadi Rencurrell Valdés and Dreiser Durruthy Bombale—as integral to New Conceptions. “My percussionists are graduates of symphonic percussion, and they have degrees in composition. They know all the Afro-Cuban folkloric [rhythms] and they have experience playing with symphonies. So they are technically able to execute either form. I introduce the piano to the rhythms, and the piano plays the rhythms like a member of the percussion section. We combine all the elements together as composers would.”

Why are these new ideas just now seeing the light of day?

“It is an evolution. We have been working and evolving and looking for new paths,” Valdés says of his quartet, which includes drummer Ramses Rodriguez Baralt, bassist Lazaro Rivero Alarcón and alto saxophonist Roman Filiu O’Reilly. “This is a new path, we are going to continue to work on this but it is a path. We have worked hard to develop and refine these concepts.”

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