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Chucho Valdés at Carnegie Hall, Jan. 21, 2012

With the Afro-Cuban Messengers and guest dynamo Buika, Latin jazz at its finest

Chucho Valdes
Chucho Valdés at Carnegie Hall, 1/12

There’s nothing flamboyant about Chucho Valdés. Ambling to the lip of the stage to inform the Carnegie Hall audience that this is his first time performing at the venue in 34 years-the previous engagement being with Irakere, the pioneering Latin jazz outfit he co-founded-he speaks as casually as if ordering takeout over the phone, first in halting English, then Spanish. At the piano, his sole concession to show business convention is the occasional raise of an arm to signal his band, the extraordinary Afro-Cuban Messengers.

In lieu of flashy presentation, Valdés puts the flourish into the music. At 70, he remains a marvel at the keys, agile and inventive. His solos are virtually flawless, dazzling, and as a bandleader he is assured and commanding-even as he lays back to take in what his cohorts are producing, there is no doubt who is calling the shots. It’s no coincidence that Valdés’ band bears a name similar to that of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers: like that iconic outfit, the Afro-Cuban Messengers is a potential breeding ground for future headliners (just as Irakere spawned Paquito D’Rivera and Arturo Sandoval). The mood at Carnegie-part of a national tour in support of Chucho’s Steps (Four Quarters), his newest album-is celebratory, Valdés and band feeding off the palpable admiration and respect that permeates the room.

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