01/14/11

Chucho Valdés: Looking Back & Taking Stock

The Cuban pianist and composer reflects on his whirlwind life in music

It’s tempting to hear Chucho’s Steps (4Q), the Grammy-nominated new album by Cuban pianist, composer and bandleader Chucho Valdés, as a memoir of sorts. After all, Valdés turned 69 on Oct. 9, and the image on the cover, not to read too much into it, depicts him approaching a crossroads.

His group on the album—his working quartet augmented here with sax, trumpet and percussion—evokes the sound, and brings back some of the material, of Irakere, the extraordinary Grammy-winning Afro-Cuban jazz-rock group Valdés co-founded in 1972. The music brims with energy and virtuosity as it elaborates on some of Valdés’ familiar musical interests. Some references are explicit, like naming his group the Afro-Cuban Messengers, or using titles such as “Zawinul’s Mambo”; “Julián,” named after Valdés’ 3-year-old son; or “New Orleans,” a tribute to the Marsalis family. Others titles are more oblique, like “Begin to Be Good,” “Both Sides,” “Yansa” or the title track.

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All of it suggests an artist looking back and taking stock. “No, there was no plan, nothing premeditated about it,” Valdés says by phone from his home in Havana. “Those pieces came out spontaneously. It’s the kind of thing that happens as one creates. You write, work on the pieces and, as you do, they suggest other ideas. And I feel that’s the best way, because spontaneity is part of this music.” Still, be it by chance or by design, Chucho’s Steps tells a story.

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Jesús Dionisio “Chucho” Valdés was born in Quivicán, a town south of Havana, Cuba. He is the son of pianist and bandleader Ramon “Bebo” Valdés, a central figure in the golden age of Cuban music in the 1940s and ’50s, and a crucial musical influence for Chucho.

As the story goes, Chucho was a prodigy who was playing by ear at the age of 3. A popular anecdote, cited by author Nat Chediak in his Diccionario de Jazz Latino, finds Bebo using Chucho to play a trick on a friend, the late Israel “Cachao” Lopez. Bebo asked Lopez to turn his back to a nearby piano and, as Chucho played, check out “a young North American pianist.” Chucho was then 4 years old.

By the time Chucho was 16, the elder Valdés was leading Sabor de Cuba, one of the nation’s epochal big bands, and brought the young pianist into the orchestra. It was extraordinary on-the-job training for a budding musician. “[My father] taught me everything about Cuban music, South American music, jazz and how to work with an orchestra,” Chucho reminisces. “He gave me the piano chair and stayed as director, so I could learn how to work under a conductor. We did our shows and a million other things with that orchestra, including accompanying shows at the Havana Hilton. I learned a lot there. And with [Bebo] I learned to orchestrate, because he is a master at that.” Chucho pauses. “He was my teacher. He still is.”

Some of those early family scenes are evoked on the new album’s fourth track, “Begin to Be Good.” “That piece has to do with the famous ‘Begin the Beguine,’” says Chucho. “The rhythm is beguine, but it’s ‘Begin to Be Good’ because we used to listen to ‘Lady Be Good’ all the time. That was the music we heard at home. On the radio we had the privilege to hear the Glenn Miller band, Art Tatum, who was my dad’s idol along with Bud Powell and Monk. My dad was un bebocero del carajo [a hell of a bebopper].” He breaks into a laugh.

Bebo was also pianist, house arranger and musical advisor at Tropicana, the legendary Havana club that came to symbolize the golden age of Cuban music and nightlife throughout the world. At Tropicana, Chucho was able to study American jazz greats up close. “I heard people like Milt Jackson, Sarah Vaughan, Nat King Cole and Buddy Rich,” he says. “And that was not on the radio; that was right there in front of me. In fact, I heard Nat playing so much piano that I liked him better as a pianist than as a singer. And then there were the jam sessions my dad took me to when I was 8 or 9, when he would play with guys like Stan Getz and Zoot Sims. For the American musicians, Havana was just a skip and jump from Miami.”

The family story, and Chucho’s world in particular, was shattered when Bebo, in the aftermath of the Cuban Revolution, left for Mexico in October of 1960. “Things got very bad,” Bebo explained some years ago. “People could not go to Tropicana because of the bombs; cars were set on fire. They even put a bomb inside Tropicana and a woman lost an arm.” The senior Valdés, now 92, has not returned to Cuba since. (Today he is fully retired and splits his time between Stockholm and Málaga, Spain. He was unavailable for interviews.) Chucho was 19 and, nearly overnight, lost his father and beloved music teacher and became the head of his family.

Writer Nat Chediak, who was also the producer of, among other projects, Juntos Para Siempre, the 2008 duets album by Bebo and Chucho, remembers hearing of the great torment Bebo’s departure caused his son. “Chucho has told me how the whole family went to say goodbye to Bebo at the airport—all except him,” he says. “It was just too much anguish for him. Chucho grew up by his father’s side.” Father and son didn’t see each other for many years.

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Bebo eventually married, settled in Sweden and started a new life. After he stopped touring in 1972, he lived in genteel obscurity, playing hotel lounges until he stopped performing altogether in 1990. In the meantime, Chucho’s Irakere exploded. In 1978, the group appeared at Carnegie Hall in New York City, a performance that would become part of the self-titled release that earned a Grammy Award for Best Latin Recording in 1980. The senior Valdés went to the concert and, backstage, Chucho and Bebo reunited. They hadn’t seen each other for 18 years. “There was never a big fight, some angry argument between them,” says Chediak. “[But there was] a great distance—and a great silence.” Chucho says that the reunion “was everything at once: It was easy, it was hard, beautiful, emotional and, musically, I think it was tremendous for both of us.”

After that encounter, they met again whenever Chucho was in Europe and, in 1994, through the efforts of a family friend, saxophonist and former Irakere member Paquito D’Rivera, Bebo returned to the studio and recorded Bebo Rides Again. The project re-launched his career, and he went on to record several more albums and win three Grammys and six Latin Grammys. Chucho was going to play on Bebo Rides Again, but had to cancel at the last minute due to an emergency tour rehearsal. (He still sounds apologetic as he explains the circumstances.)

Bebo and Chucho coincided later at a D’Rivera show in San Francisco and played two pieces captured on D’Rivera’s hard-to-find Cuba Jazz (90 Miles to Cuba) from 1996. But the father and son reunion became fully realized musically in 2000 for Calle 54, the Latin-jazz film by Spanish director and record producer Fernando Trueba. (A soundtrack album was released by Blue Note.) “Just as in the shooting of any movie, you have the story of the lead actor falling in love with the leading lady. In the shooting of Calle 54, theirs was the great love story,” recalls Chediak, who was instrumental in the project and wrote a book about the shoot. “And, after that, they became two drops of water coming together. There was no way of separating them. For all his recordings and compositions, for Bebo, his greatest creation is Chucho.”

The reunion culminated in Juntos Para Siempre, which earned them a Grammy and a Latin Grammy. “That’s one of the recordings I love the most,” says Chucho. Chediak was with Chucho the night of the Grammys. “He and I were walking after the ceremony, just the two of us, our wives were elsewhere,” says Chediak. “And he kept saying to himself, ‘This is one of the most marvelous nights in my life. This is one of the most marvelous nights in my life.’ He had already won I don’t know how many Grammys by then, but this one was special; this one was with the old man.”

The rest of this article appears in the January/February 2011 issue of JazzTimes.

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