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Chucho Valdes: Solo – Live in New York

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Most jazz-related discussions about Cuban music rightly and effusively celebrate its African component. Cuban music would be impoverished without it. Yet it is a mistake to undervalue Cuban music’s Spanish roots, not just in terms of folk-dance forms, like the bolero, but in the pedagogy that has made Cuba a hothouse for virtuoso musicians as well. The latter is clearly traceable in the synthesis of passion and precision projected by the best Cuban jazz pianists, regardless of ancestry. Arguably, there are fewer than six degrees of separation between a Chucho Valdes and an Alicia de Lorrocha. Valdes’ latest CDs, Solo-Live In New York and Unforgettable Boleros, are a reminder that it is the bicultural nature of Cuban music that gives it its vitality.

The Spanish tinge is very much in evidence on the typically dazzling Solo-Live In New York. Play the sparklingly lyrical three-minute opener, “A Mi Madre,” for a blindfolded Spanish-music aficionado, and the names of local heroes like Chano Dominguez and Inaki Salvador would probably crop up much sooner than Valdes. Only the second half of the piece, which splices traditionally florid references to “Guantanamera” with spellbinding Tatumesque asides, gives Valdes away. Valdes initially tackles a vintage ’20s danzon, “Tres Lindas Cubanas,” not with the earthiness of Sexteto Habanero’s classic recording, but with a parlor recital rectitude that is only shaken off with some of his most spectacular pyrotechnics.

The overall shape of Solo-Live in New York differs markedly from his earlier solo albums. Still, Valdes takes ample opportunities to tap his African roots with the passion that distinguishes Lucumi (Messidor; 1986), and to distill the work of American jazz masters with the acumen and imagination displayed on Solo Piano (Blue Note; 1991). After establishing his idiomatic bona fides on “Rumba Guajira,” Valdes launches into a jubilant township hymn, highlighted by the type of avalanchelike effects that evoke both Abdullah Ibrahim and Don Pullen. Valdes’ ornate take on “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is an interesting commentary on the touchy problem of melding monster chops and torchy melodrama, one that has been addressed by pianists as diverse as Tatum, Jaki Byard and Kenny Drew Jr. The new result is that Solo-Live in New York sheds intriguing new light on this masterful pianist.

Unforgettable Boleros, though, is a perplexing album. It has little of Irakere’s signature descarga fire. Instead, the album is excessively sweet, centering on the show-stopping vocals of Mayra Caridad Valdes, Leo Vera and Jose Miguel Mel‚ndez. Boleros certainly played an important role in the evolution of Cuban music from the ’30s to the ’60s, but Valdes’ velvety arrangements of pieces by Ernesto Lecuona, Oswaldo Farres and other revered bolero composers makes no case for their relevance to today’s Cuban jazz. A tantalizing taste of the pianist here and alto saxophonist C‚sar Lop‚z there only makes the stringy, synth-laced album more frustrating. Cherry-pick the set, double the running times, let the horns and percussion loose and then you would have a solid Irakere album.