Much has been written about the dynasty of the Valdés family – no matter where they happen to dwell – and Chucho and father Bebo’s collective work will soon encompass a century of extraordinary output. Chucho Valdés belongs to that singular and often untouchable elite of Cuba’s prolific geniuses – all at once monstrously talented and endlessly creative, with a fondness for reinvention in each subsequent work. His influence on aspiring young talent along with his innovative and genre-defying group Irakere paved the way for a new breed of Cuban musician, and the results of his expansive repertoire have painted the international landscape with remarkable variety. We can also hear in him the undeniable influence of the American jazz masters – from Tatum to Peterson and McCoy, as well as the indelible footprint of father Bebo.
Chucho’s Steps is the latest incarnation of the pianist/band-leader and composer’s multi-faceted journey, exploring a more cozy quintet setting for the most part, which Valdés seems to find a happy medium between the sparse piano trio setting and the “monster-band” format of the aforementioned Irakere. Recorded at Abdala studio in Havana, this recording is at once an intimate conversation between the Maestro and his newest ensemble of protégés and a remarkably free, energetic and nuanced performance in an all-acoustic setting. The opener “Zawinul’s Mambo” could have easily been titled “Birdland in Havana” in it’s tribute and literal re-interpretation of the Zawinul classic, only without the need for any electronics. The rhythmical play is, as is typical among Cubans, mind-boggling, with a punctuating percussion line that weaves throughout the piece as it winds through melodic fragments, solos and hypnotic grooves. The album includes a number of Chucho’s new “standards” – pieces that reflect his penchant for rich, traditional melodies – along with his homage to the defining work of cultural fusion established early on in his career.
Particularly lovely is “Danzón,” which curiously enough starts as a jazz ballad before charging into the distinctly Cuban national rhythm, and the deeply spiritual “Yansa” – a pastiche of modal jazz with Yoruban liturgical chants to the Goddess Oyá. This piece differs from the rest of the repertoire in its inclusion of Lucumí ritual singing in call-and-response along with the batá drums, and is the more obvious indication of the Irakere stamp.
Another twist on Chucho’s Steps is Valdés’ exploration of odd meter in several pieces, among them the title track, a clear sign that while we know Cuban music to be inherently danceable, this is an album to be listened to, period. Valdés has always enjoyed the musical camaraderie of extraordinary talent, and his line-up of players on this recording is no exception. Anyone who loves Cuban music and Latin jazz knows the power and brilliance of Chucho Valdés’ playing, his writing and his extraordinary arranging skill. Chucho’s Steps is almost as good as seeing the man live, and I for one am grateful for every chance to witness the man and his music.