To say that Chucho Valdés feels at home in Barcelona is an understatement. The warmth and embrace the Cuban piano legend, 73, is given by the city’s music community is almost legendary-sold-out shows, invitations to fine restaurants and what has become an annual headlining slot in the city’s premier jazz festival. The most recent edition of the Voll-Damm Barcelona International Jazz Festival, which ran through most of November in its 46th consecutive year, included Valdés leading his group the Afro-Cuban Messengers in a number of popular workshops at the Conservatori del Liceu, the city’s leading music school for jazz. Those sessions led up to a triumphant concert celebrating the groundbreaking Cuban supergroup Irakere, the band that launched Valdés’ reputation and career outside of Cuba.
This Before & After listening session was held in the Conservatori’s primary auditorium and was open to students and the public, as part of a workshop and speaking series sponsored by Sergi Ferrer-Salat, founder of the city’s renowned wine restaurant Monvínic. It was the final event in a 10-day series, during which the pianist was generous and willing to participate and share. It was well attended-almost 100 students and music fans-and found the pianist in a relaxed mood after the stellar Irakere tribute the evening before. Joan Anton Cararach, artistic director of the festival, helped translate.
The choice of music to play for Valdés was inspired by a brief solo performance he gave this past August at Brighton Gardens, an assisted-living facility in northern New Jersey that former Blue Note president Bruce Lundvall now calls home. Valdés had flown in on his own dime to join other well-known musicians-Norah Jones, Joe Lovano, Dianne Reeves and Bill Charlap among them-as part of a day-long musical salute to the man who had helped bring so many to public recognition (including, and especially the Cuban pianist). Valdés delivered a spontaneous outburst of melodies and energy that chanelled the classical music of his native island, along with Flamenco and blues flavors and persistent postbop excitement. The inspired, free-flowing tour-de-force revealed much of Valdés’ omnivorous musical awareness, and left the wheel-chair-bound Lundvall smiling, almost levitating.
1. Emiliano Salvador
“Emiliano’s Blues” (Pianissimo, MusicHaus). Salvador, piano. Recorded in 2002.
BEFORE: It’s somebody close to McCoy [Tyner]. Some of the phrases are 100-percent McCoy, but I also hear some chops that McCoy wouldn’t play, and his attack is not as strong as McCoy. If it is McCoy, he’s playing some stuff I never heard before from him. But I think it’s somebody who plays very well and is very close to McCoy’s style.
AFTER: Ahh, wow-Emiliano! Bueno. He’s the Cuban player most influenced by McCoy I would say, but on this song you can really feel the difference, what he was doing that was from his influences and who he was, especially in his attack on the piano. That you don’t forget: Everyone knew that sound in the 1980s in Havana. I was very surprised that it was Emiliano. This was not familiar to me but I liked it.
2. Erroll Garner
“St. James Infirmary” (Afternoon of an Elf, Mercury).
Garner, piano. Recorded in 1955.
BEFORE: The only one who plays like this is Michel Camilo. Maybe that’s wrong, but anyway, Michel is one of the best not only in the Latin, Afro-Cuban field but as a general piano player. If it’s Michel, congratulations-this is a great song. If it is not, it’s somebody who really follows him.
Would you be surprised if I told you this was recorded in the 1950s-more than 20 years before Michel came on the scene?
[laughs] Then I think Michel got a lot of elements from this player. We all take elements from everybody, you know.
AFTER: Erroll Garner? Madre mía! I love him. He is one of my top piano players of all time. I felt that the facility that Michel has in playing octaves made me think it could be him. I didn’t recognize this particular tune, but I feel that there’s some strong Latin roots in it. It’s familiar for him but I didn’t recognize the piece. It’s a New Orleans piece? That’s the reason I didn’t think of Erroll Garner-it felt so Cuban.
3. Vijay Iyer
“Epistrophy” (Solo, ACT). Iyer, piano. Recorded in 2010.
BEFORE: Whoever it is, he’s playing Monk-“Epistrophy”-but very different. The playing is complex and very creative. It reminds me a little of the style of Brad Mehldau. If it’s not Brad, it’s someone else who likes to play with a very complicated technique-and not just technique, but a very large imagination to do all those inventions on Monk’s tune, fading in and out of the melody and going off into other things, other variations. If it’s not Brad, it’s someone from this new generation.
AFTER: Vijay! I was close. I’m a fan: mucho, mucho, mucho. He has a really broad imagination, and I’ve listened to a lot of his music and also Brad Mehldau. There’s a piece on my  record, Chucho’s Steps, that was inspired from my listening to Vijay-I keep listening to him, all the time. We met in Vienna one time, in the airport, and I told him about that piece. He’s just a very original musician.
4. James Booker
“Malaguena a la Louisiana” (Let’s Make a Better World!, Amiga). Booker, piano. Recorded in 1977.
BEFORE: Claro-he’s playing [Ernesto] Lecuona’s “Malagueña.” I can identify players more when they improvise, which isn’t so much on this performance. But he’s a great piano player, because he’s handling Lecuona with all of his complexities and playing the full range of the piano-and it’s a live recording. His left hand reminds me a lot of the style of Erroll Garner, because like I said, everyone’s listening to someone else, and you can know someone by listening just for what they’re borrowing from others. I think Lecuona would be very happy with this version, because you can hear the piano player respects the melody and understands the rhythm. I was very lucky to have met Lecuona, playing in his home, and then I played for him. That was a very special day for me.
AFTER: Again the New Orleans/Cuba connection. I’m going to have to look for the music of this piano player, because he’s really a genius. Gracias!
5. Hank Mobley
“This I Dig of You” (Soul Station, Blue Note). Mobley, tenor saxophone; Wynton Kelly, piano; Paul Chambers, bass; Art Blakey, drums. Recorded in 1960.
BEFORE: [laughs] Este pianista siempre me ha puesto a gozar! This piano player always makes me enjoy the music-always, always. Of all the piano players who played with Miles Davis, Wynton Kelly is my favorite. Sorry, Chick [Corea]. For me, no one played with more swing and with more joy. You can hear that on this track-with Hank Mobley, correct? I recognize [Kelly’s] sound and his swing immediately. You know, I spent years transcribing his solos in Cuba-not for school or anything like that, just for me. Listening, listening again, especially all the solos he played with Miles. Later I would share all the transcriptions with Emiliano Salvador and the other piano players in Cuba. That’s how we did it.
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Further reflections on Chucho Valdés and the 2014 Barcelona Voll-Damm International Jazz Festival…
By Ashley Kahn
A few details of my Barcelona in 2014: I attended eight out of the festival’s almost 100 performances, almost all of which featured well-known American (and in one case, well known in America) musicians. It was totally by chance that I missed all of the 18 or so concerts headlined by European artists, which was unfortunate as I always look forward to being introduced to music that has yet to make it to the U.S. Yet there were some concerts that felt unique to Barcelona-like guitar master Kurt Rosenwinkel’s collaboration with Portugal’s Orquestra Jazz de Matosinhos. It was only the third time they had performed together in four years, and from all reports (including my take) the most successful.
Then there’s Chucho Valdés. As mentioned in the intro to our Before & After session, Valdés has in many ways become a figurehead of sorts for the festival, invited back year after year and performing one-of-a-kind musical events like 2013’s “Rumba Para Bebo,” his expansive jazz and folkloric salute to his piano-pioneer father who had recently died. His 40th-anniversary salute to Irakere featured his current rhythm group, the Afro-Cuban Messengers, boosted by a full horn section and a special guest, trumpeter Alexander Abreu, who had performed in the final edition of Irakere. Highlights of Valdés’ week of open rehearsals and workshops in Conservatori del Liceu included a special recital by one of Cuba’s leading classical pianists, Mauricio Vallina, who focused on the island’s most celebrated composers, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Ernesto Lecuona and others.
Finally, Valdés served as the headliner in one of the festival’s signature events: the Monvinic experience, a winetasting-cum-chamber-performance that an elite audience-primarily friends of the festival who help make it happen-attend each year. Held in the internationally celebrated Monvinic restaurant, the pianist’s role this year was to help pay tribute to one of Europe’s star sommeliers, Josep Roca, who shared a choice of rare wines from his personal collection. Valdés’ brief improvisations after each glass ranged in mood from joyous romps that touched upon his love of the hard-bop masters to sublime, classically informed elegies. They hopefully were recorded, but then again, there’s something to the idea of music that’s intended to be enjoyed once and once only, much like the fleeting flavor of an exceptional wine.
The Monvinic experience is the brainchild of Joan Anton Cararach, and is supported by Sergi Ferrer-Salat. Cararach’s vision of the festival includes an integration of Barcelona’s cultural community-not just Monvinic, but its music schools, media, even the U.S. Consulate, which for a number of years has invited American journalists and writers to visit the city during the festival while lecturing in area schools. It’s an exemplary aspect of the festival, one that’s a lot more informal and at times seems more effective than other festivals with educational partnerships.
But the festival’s true nature revealed itself in the music. As it has in recent years, it hosted consistently top-level performances that bested recent concerts heard by the same musicians only weeks prior. Wayne Shorter and his current, classic quartet-pianist Danilo Pérez, bassist John Patitucci, drummer Brian Blade-delivered the kind of daring that they attain on a really good night, with Shorter’s solos a thrilling thread running through and complementing the rhythmic interplay of the other three. Much of that evening’s fire can be credited to Blade, who came alive, pushing the energy and goosing his bandmates until he knocked over the entire kit at the end of the encore (a punk-rock move that clearly came from a dose of over-enthusiasm rather than nihilistic impulse).
Zakir Hussain’s Masters of Percussion was a joyride of polyrhythms and percussive discussions between the musicians of the multicultural group (a membership that rotates year by year), playing exotic instruments like the Nepalese stringed sarangi, the Persian frame-drum doyra, the Indian double-headed drum dhol, the ethereal bansuri flute, common throughout southern Asia, plus, of course, Hussain himself on tabla. The evening’s energy never flagged as different players would pair off, then take a solo while others comped; the final piece was an all-in conflagration of musical textures that built to a ringing level of intensity and brought the audience to its feet.
Saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa’s quartet Gamak is also a study in intensity and meticulousness-a way of proving the soulfulness that can be pulled from precise, arithmetic patterns that act as the booster to a higher level of-dare I say it-spirituality. (I have often seen the saxophonist lead a number of groups in the NYC area but never grasped this particular aspect of his music until this concert.) Interestingly, the group had a new drummer playing with them that night, Paolo Cantarella, who was making his European debut; surely his first-time jitters helped add to the fire. And Rez Abbasi’s guitar was a delight on its own, flexible in its stylistic vocabulary. I recall one moment during which he seemed to channel Kenny Burrell and another signature that I recognized but could not name-until I realized it was mid-’70s Frank Zappa.
I had caught a number of duet sets by Kenny Barron and Dave Holland just prior to visiting Barcelona, and had been impressed, but their sole performance for the festival was another thing entirely-a deep, soulful blend of voices that took its time and seemed more serious in its consideration of the music yet was so easy and light in its delivery. Their version of Ellington’s “Day Dream” was something I wish I could have wrapped up and taken home.
Barcelona’s Voll-Damm International Jazz Festival offers nothing if not musical consistency from the artists who perform there. As to why, much can be credited to how the artists are treated: Since the festival is primarily a long series of single-concert evenings, the attention given to each group, by organizers and audience alike, is full and personal. Then there’s the charm and history of the city itself. If this reads like a ringing endorsement, it should.