Tag Archives: Chucho Valdés

For Dr. Billy Taylor’s 93rd Birthday Anniversary (1921-2010), An Uncut Blindfold Test from 2005

I got to know Dr. Billy Taylor a bit towards the end of the ’90s, after Bret Primack asked to write the liner notes for a live recording by his trio—unfortunately, it was never released. (I posted it on this website three years ago to the day.) Five years later, he consented to have me come to his Bronx apartment to sit for a DownBeat Blindfold Test, of which I post the uncut version below. His responses show how open-minded he was, how oriented to the here-and-now. A great artist and ambassador for the music, much missed.


Billy Taylor BT (Raw):
1. Geri Allen, “Dance of the Infidels” (from THE LIFE OF A SONG, Telarc, 2004) (Allen, piano; Dave Holland, bass; Jack DeJohnette, drums, Bud Powell, composer)

I have no idea who that is. I haven’t been listening to other people for a long time now, since I had my stroke. So I’ve been listening mostly to things that I did. So now I’m not as aware as I used to be. Because I had to listen to a lot of people to present them in the different things that I was doing.

This is very interesting. It’s someone who’s harmonically oriented, and really is handling the piano like a horn in some respects, because he’s playing that kind of horn-like improvisations. I find that very interesting, because it goes off into some very different spaces that I wouldn’t think to do. I liked it. [Do you recall the tune?] No, I don’t. [Someone you knew pretty well composed it.] Really? I’m embarrassed. [The original version was at a much hotter tempo.] This was very relaxed. I liked where it was going. It helped me… I’m listening. Oh yeah? Really? That kind of stuff! I also liked the rhythm section very much. It seems like a group that’s played together a lot, and they know each other. Everybody seemed comfortable. 4 stars. A very fine performance. [AFTER] I’ll be darned! Geri is one of my favorite people, and one of the people’s whose work… I’m embarrassed now. Because she is so special to me. She’s one of the few people I’ve asked to play my work. I was ill, and she substituted for me on a thing that I was doing for David Parsons Dance Company, and did a brilliant job. Oh, she’s wonderful. Oh, it’s really embarrassing. Because I have this. But I didn’t… Man, I like this picture, too.

2. Bebo & Chucho Valdes, “Peanut Vendor” (from PAQUITO D’RIVERA PRESENTS CUBA JAZZ, RMM, 1996) (Bebo Valdes & Chucho Valdes, piano; Moises Simon, composer)

That’s two players that really are comfortable playing in Latin Jazz. I really love that. I have no idea who they are. But they are so comfortable with that style, man. My first job playing Latin music was with Machito, and I remember the first time Mario Bauzá threw something like that at me. I didn’t know what to do with those two chords, man! So the best I could do was to play some jazz over it, and in that band it worked, until he could get back to the piano and show me what to do with the montuno. That whole idea of giving you all the information you need harmonically, melodically and rhythmically, it just amazes me how they can do that in that context. You’re talking basically a very simple harmony. I fell out when I heard the pianist playing some Art Tatum, that thing that he does. It was pretty exciting. It sounds like Chucho, who I’ve played with. 4 stars for sure.

3. Ron Carter, “The Golden Striker” (from THE GOLDEN STRIKER, Blue Note, 2003) (Carter, bass; Mulgrew Miller, piano; Russell Malone, bass)

It sure sounds like Percy Heath and John Lewis doing some interesting things. The tune is by John Lewis, but I don’t recall the name, although I’ve played it. I certainly like the kind of interplay that people who know one another have in a combination like this. It’s not just the fact that you’re playing a familiar jazz work, but they are so comfortable with it. I hear something that I haven’ t heard. They are adding something very personal to it. Everything you’ve played for me, I’m giving at least four stars. Because what you’ve played for me so far, these are masters. They’re people who are playing something that is part of the repertoire, and it’s not something I’ve heard someone else play and come close to this kind of feeling and projecting the kind of thing that John Lewis meant when he wrote the song. [AFTER] I love it! Like I said, it’s jazz masters.

4. John Stetch, “Bright Mississippi” (from EXPONENTIALLY MONK, Justin Time, 2004) (Stetch, piano; Thelonious Monk, composer)

I think Monk would have enjoyed that. It was different! There are a lot of things you can do with the changes of “Sweet Georgia Brown,” but that sure was different than anything I’ve heard done. He carried the whole idea of keeping everything within almost an octave. He barely got out of the octave that he was doing the bass line in. To maintain that and to sustain it, that really held my interest. I expected it to lose me. But he stuck right in there, and it made it right from beginning to end. Very nice. It’s odd when someone decides to go out on a limb and say, “Well, I’m going to do all of these awkward intervals, then I’m going to make a bass line and put something on it.” It’s very inventive. 4 stars. This got 4 stars because of the fact that the pianist heard it, said, “Now, here’s something I can do with these kinds of intervals; I’m going to do these on well-known changes, but I’m going to take somebody’s melody that’s off the wall, and I’m going off the wall with that.” It was very inventive, I thought.

5. David Hazeltine, “Sweet and Lovely” (from ALICE IN WONDERLAND, Venus, 2004) (Hazeltine, piano; George Mraz, bass; Billy Drummond, drums)

“Sweet and Lovely.” I love the way the pianist sets something up harmonically, and follows it through both with the voicing of the chord that he’s improvising on, and the manner in which he structures the improvisation. It shows a continuity that I really like. You don’t hear enough of that. You hear it in Hank Jones and some of the guys of my generation, but this sounded like a younger pianist who was doing that. [Why does it sound like a younger pianist?] I don’t know. There were things that were very much older in terms of what he was playing. But if this is an older guy, he’s young in spirit, because I get the same rhythmic thing. There’s a difference in rhythm that not all of us retain when we get older. I loved the rhythm section. It was perfect. It laid it right down. It enhanced the piano sound, because he’s got a good touch, a lovely touch, and the bass was right under it, laying with him. I’ve played that tune many times, and they were doing some slightly different changes… That’s why I was thinking this was someone younger, or he was listening to younger guys. This is a whole tune, it’s been done a zillion ways, and he put some stuff in there that was really beautiful. 4 stars.

6. Jean-Michel Pilc, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” (from FOLLOW ME, Dreyfus, 2004) (Pilc, piano; Fats Waller, composer)

This is the first one that didn’t hold my interest as much as I would like. That’s one of my favorite Fats Waller tunes, and you can take it outside and do a lot of things with it. It’s interesting, but this didn’t interest me that much. It didn’t swing enough or long enough, it didn’t hold me harmonically enough. It was cute. I mean, it was different, it had nice things. But for me, if I were playing, it would be an experiment that was interesting, but I’d have to go back and try to find something else. It didn’t make it as an experiment. Something was missing. 2-1/2 stars [AFTER] I know Jean-Michel’s work, and I didn’t recognize him. I enjoy his work very much. But this didn’t work for me. He’s a very fine pianist. I have several things he’s done, and I like them. Because he’s adventurous, as you can hear. In more cases than not, it works.

7. Marcus Roberts, “Rickitick Tick” (from IN HONOR OF DUKE, Columbia, 1999) (Roberts, piano, comp.; Roland Guerin, bass; Jason Marsalis, drums)

Another experiment that’s interesting, but doesn’t hold my interest very long. It’s nice, and many of the things that the drummer was doing remind me of Winard Harper, who plays drums with me. Winard does some things that are so rhythmic; they have a form that I like. So it’s kind of hard for me to hear someone else do that concept which I associate with him, and do it a little different. It’s not appealing to me in that regard. I’d give it 2 stars. [AFTER] When I’m accustomed to a specific thing in a style, it’s hard for me to accept something that doesn’t please me as much. I like Jason’s work. He’s a very imaginative drummer. I’ve watched him grow over the years from a young guy… He’s very mature in what he’s doing now. Generally speaking, I like what he does.

8. Randy Weston, “Portrait of Dizzy” (from MARRAKECH: IN THE COOL OF THE EVENING, Verve, 1994) (Weston, piano)

Those were three of Dizzy’s most interesting melodies to me, and an abstraction of those melodies is less interesting to me than to play the melodies themselves. Because they are some of the best melodies, to me, that came out of the bebop context. I was playing something for Tatum one time, and he said, “If you can’t make it better, don’t change it.” 1 star. [AFTER] He’s a good friend of mine, but that’s what I think. I’m surprised, though, because I love Randy’s work when he’s playing most things like that. What threw me is that I’m so used to hearing him play rhythm, and he’s so rhythmic and he plays so beautifully with rhythms. I guess that’s what I missed there. I’m embarrassed.

9. Hiromi, “Desert On the Moon” (from BRAIN, Telarc, 2004) (Hiromi, piano; Anthony Jackson, bass; Martin Valihora, drums)

Chick Corea? No? It sounded very much like him. Boy! The touch and some of the harmonies, I thought. That fooled me. Very nice, whoever it was. The kinds of things that he was doing there… I liked the touch, and I liked the way he balanced his playing. It was organized beautifully, arranged very nicely, I thought. Chick was the first one who comes to mind playing rhythmically like that and harmonically like that. Or maybe Keith Jarrett or someone like that. I liked the harmonic flow. I liked the general musicality of it. This style I think is one of the styles that seems to stick around, and there are many guys who can do something like that. But as I said, the thing that appeals to me is the combination of harmony, melody and rhythm, how that’s put together in an organizational way… It’s arranged beautifully, even though it’s not an arrangement per se. It has a nice flow. 4 stars. [AFTER] I don’t know her work. As a matter of fact, I used her at the Kennedy Center. I should have remembered. I used her for the Women’s Jazz Festival. She’s one of the people I’ve been thinking about in that context. We haven’t done as much as I hope I will do with her. Because she really comes across. She’s very interesting to watch when she plays—as well as she sounds. She’s a very interesting player. It’s nice to run into young players that have a personality when they play.

10. Michel Camilo, “The Frim-Fram Sauce” (from SOLO, Telarc, 2005) (Camilo, piano)

“Save the bones for Henry Jones.” It’s very interesting that someone would take Nat Cole’s vocal and make that kind of an instrumental out of it. It’s very well done. He captured the spirit of it. It’s fascinating, though, because everybody I’ve heard so far, I haven’t heard the kind of left hand that I grew up with. I am interested in what many of these other younger players are doing to compensate for that. They’re not playing stride piano or any style of it, but they are doing something that’s a combination of walking and other things like that. Which is very good. It’s very up-to-date and makes it… I’m spoiled, because I came up with Fats Waller and Nat Cole and people who did that. But a lot of pianists who can stretch a tenth don’t choose to do that. They’ll do other things. 4 stars. It was very well done. [AFTER] I’ll be damned! I was just reading something about him. That’s funny. We’ve played together a lot, and I know he can stretch a tenth. But for some reason, he didn’t. But he didn’t have to. He did what he did, and it was very personal.

11. Onaje Allan Gumbs, “Dreamsville” (from RETURN TO FORM, Half Note, 2003) (Gumbs, piano; Marcus McLaurine, bass; Payton Crossley, drums; Henry Mancini, comp.)

That was beautiful. A nice way of starting a ballad and building it up into a nice flowing feeling there. I liked that. The tune is by Henry Mancini, and that’s one of his lovely melodies. I really like it. 4 stars. The guy has a nice touch, and used it in a lot of… I like it when it’s musical. One thing that I generally find missing in younger pianists is the rhythmic feeling. I’m not hearing as much of the rhythm as I’m accustomed to. I want melody, harmony, and rhythm, all three of them, in a different way. Sometimes I just lose the feeling of the rhythm. It’s melodic, it’s beautiful, it’s rhapsodic, or whatever the player intends for it to be. But for me, it doesn’t satisfy something I like to hear. That’s a personal bias, I suppose, but I like all three of the elements. I don’t mean that as an overall critique. I’m just saying that many of the things I hear younger players do doesn’t swing enough for me. And by their terms. I don’t mean swing like I would swing, but swing whatever their style, and really swing, make that rhythm happen. [AFTER] Onaje! Wonderful.

12. Dave McKenna, “C-Jam Blues” (from LIVE AT MAYBECK RECITAL HALL, VOL. 2, Concord, 1990) (McKenna, piano; Duke Ellington, composer)

I know who it is, but I can’t remember his name. He used to live in the Poconos, and did a lot of stuff for Concord Records… Dave McKenna. I love his playing. He does this better than anybody I know. Those are some interesting lines he’s playing, man. They’re fascinating. Now, that’s a left hand! One of the things I pride myself in is what I do with the left hand, because it’s what I grew up with and I like to use it. But I love the way he used it, because that’s very personal. I remember years ago, when I first met Dave, I did a radio piece on him, and I was pointing out the fact that this was the most unique left hand I’d heard since Fats Waller. It was so personal and the way he did it was so effective as a contemporary way of doing basslines. 5 stars.




Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Dr. Billy Taylor, New York

Chucho Valdés Is 71 Today: A 2004 Downbeat Feature

For the 71st birthday of the magisterial Cuban Jesus “Chucho” Valdés — and the 93rd for his father, Bebo Valdés — here’s an feature piece I wrote about him for DownBeat in 2004.

The end of the piece is inaccurate — as it turned out, Valdés did not miss his U.S. gigs because of a hernia condition, but because of certain business and personal conflicts which I won’t elaborate upon.

* * *

Thirty years ago, Jesus “Chucho” Valdés relates, his biggest dream was to see Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner perform. Now, on the final Monday of 2003, Valdés was about to embark on a week when and he and the piano giants would simultaneously play major club engagements in New York City.

Over the past few years, the enigmatic Cuban pianist had barely played a note in New York. Booked to play the Village Vanguard in 2002 and early 2003, visa-processing delays by the Homeland Security Administration forced him to miss these dates, as well as other gigs in the States. Cuba is on a list of countries considered a “state sponsor of terrorism” by the United States—to receive a visa, its citizens need to get a special security clearance from the State Department—so stories like Valdes’ are more the rule than the exception.

This time, art prevailed, and Valdés, with his visa secured and upgraded, arrived in New York from Havana for a week at the Vanguard without bureaucratic holdup. His long absence in and of itself imparted extra significance to this residence. But to raise expectations even higher, he was scheduled to perform with a completely new band.

When Valdés descended into the Vanguard to meet his New York band for the week to come, awaiting him downstairs were Puerto Rican-raised bassist John Benitez, Cuban-raised drummer Dafnis Prieto and veteran Nuyorican conguero Ray Mantilla. After warm greetings and salutations, the musicians—never in a room together until that moment—took the bandstand and launched into “Besame Mucho” as a flowing son, locking in from the first measures with the intuition of old friends conversing over a post-dinner apertif. In that mode, they rehearsed until nightfall.

“Generally, Cuban groups like Irakere are very formed,” Valdés said over lunch at the Manhattan restaurant Patria prior to his first rehearsal with the new group. “You can do complicated things, and you have all the time in the world to rehearse. Things take time when they’re hard. This is another story, because it’s imagination, adventure. The other is an adventure, too, but planned. Everything depends on how we connect, musically and in the idea. I have done other things; now is the moment to do this. This for me is something new, and I like it.”

Valdés agreed to take on this project at the suggestion of his close friend Lorraine Gordon, the Vanguard’s proprietor. He first played the venerable basement in September 1996 as a member of Roy Hargrove’s Big Band, and subsequently in 1997 with Hargrove’s Crisol, the New York–Cuba ensemble in which Valdés showcased his jazz skills to an American audience that knew him only as the keyboardist and musical director of Irakere. In 1999, he recorded a live album on the premises for Blue Note with his quartet of Cuban musicians, Live At The Village Vanguard.

At 62, Valdés is a national icon in Cuba. As the creative force behind Irakere, he spent the ’70s and ’80s finding ways to place jazz harmonies over the songo beat, a rhythm of his own invention that blends Cuban street beats—rumba, guaguanco and yumba—with American funk.

Since the mid ’90s he’s used his international prestige to draw world-class artists to the Havana Jazz Festival. But Valdés had never done anything quite like this week at the Vanguard, where he allowed himself to complete a circle, to connect wholeheartedly with his earliest musical aspirations in a way that he has been unwilling or unable to do for many years.

“Mistakenly, some people thought jazz was imperialist music,” Valdés says, describing the ideological attitude of Cuba’s cultural commissars in the early ’60s. “A great error. I have struggled all my life. But I maintained my connections in the difficult period, and today I have the best jazz festival in all of the Southern Americas. Easier said than done, but we did it.”


Before sold-out crowds at the Vanguard each night, Valdés allowed himself to eschew the firm control with which he customarily directs the musicians in his ensembles. He opted for improvisation, interaction, and open exchange of ideas with his world-class partners, subordinating pyrotechnics and virtuosic flourishes to collective ends. In short, Valdés displayed a fully bilingual tonal personality—not a pianist who layers jazz elements onto a Cuban sensibility, but a Cuban musician fully at home with the idiomatic particulars of jazz vocabulary.

He revealed a staggering breadth of reference. He might begin a set with a chromatic workout on the luscious atonal melody of “Son Parabea,” composed that very week, and then follow it with a quote-filled tour through “Besamé Mucho” (the final night saw stops at “Work Song,” “Eleanor Rigby,” “Nature Boy,” “Love Me Or Leave Me” and “Bolivia”), addressed as a soulful bolero-blues. He transformed Miles Davis’ “Solar” into a Cubop tour de force, juxtaposing different metric signatures with each hand and articulating the dynamics and velocities with total control. He played the balladic danzons “La Comparsa” or “Tres Palabras,” or perhaps his own classic, “Claudia,” deploying the harmonic language of Ravel and Debussy and Villa-Lobos in his statements. He paid homage to Bill Evans (“Waltz For Debby”) and Duke Ellington (“In A Sentimental Mood”).

Valdés is a long-standing devotee of Gershwin, with interpretations of “Rhapsody in Blue,” “Embraceable You” and “But Not For Me” on his extraordinary string of albums for Blue Note since 1998. At the Vanguard he played “Liza”—traveling the timeline from idiomatic Fats Waller stride to baroque Art Tatum romanticism to intense Bud Powell bebop—and a catchy “I Got Rhythm” variant, songo-style, on which each night he found new ways to interpolate snippets from “Birks Works,” “Salt Peanuts,” “Manteca,” “Dizzy Atmosphere” and other refrains from Dizzy Gillespie, as well as “Cheek To Cheek” and “Blue Rondo A La Turk.”

“We were exploring for the whole week,” Prieto said. “We didn’t know what was going to happen, and it stayed fresh. I was impressed by the way he conducts. He would raise his hand, and you wouldn’t have to pay attention twice to see what he meant. It made things very tight, and he made decisions at the right time and with the right conception. He’s very clear. He surprised me in the way he directed the band, in his piano playing, and in his interaction. After that week, I think differently about him.”


At our luncheon at Patria, Valdés squeezed his six-and-a-half foot frame and not inconsiderable bulk into a booth with his wife of four years, Ileana, and translator Ned Sublette, the proprietor of the Cuba-centric Qbadisc label and author of a forthcoming history of Cuban music. Valdés ate ceviche and a chicken cutlet sandwich, drank wine, and held forth on a variety of subjects, constantly referencing the culture in which he developed his core aesthetic values.

“There was everything in Havana,” Valdés said of his formative years, which coincided with the regime of strongman Fulgencio Batista and the height of American Mafia influence in the Cuban tourist trade. “Most of the big hotels had cabarets with shows, and they brought in big names. Johnny Mathis, for example. I remember when Sarah Vaughan was in the Sans Souci at the same time Nat King Cole was at the Tropicana, and when the two shows finished, everybody went to the Sans Souci to have a jam session with Sarah. There were a lot of jam sessions after the cabarets closed, and there were always North American musicians appearing. Zoot Sims. Mundell Lowe. Jimmy Knepper.
“Stan Getz showed up, borrowed a tenor, and sight-read the hotel show like he’d been playing the book for a hundred years,” he continued. “Nobody knew that they were in Cuba. The movie theaters would have a show after the movie; I saw Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball once, and artists from Spain and France. During the ‘50s, Josephine Baker was at the Tropicana. I was the pianist on the last record she made, in 1966, in Havana.”

Valdés attended conservatory for classical music and was home-schooled in jazz and the many varieties of Cuban music by his father, pianist Bebo Valdés, himself a virtuoso jazz stylist who in 1952 transplanted the bata drum from the rituals of Santeria into mainstream Cuban dance. He first played professionally at a lounge in the Tropicana around 1957–’58. “It was a bebop trio, and I played pure American style,” he recalls. “I was trying to reproduce all the things I listened to. Wynton Kelly, Horace Silver, Red Garland—the Miles Davis pianists. Bud Powell. Many things of Oscar Peterson. I followed the line of my father, because of his experience. I admire him a lot. He’s one of the greatest pianists I’ve listened to in Cuba. He told me, ‘Study pure Classical, and you’ve got to study jazz by periods.’ We started with Jelly Roll Morton, and I learned ragtime, boogie, swing, bebop, and modal by epoch. Learn each thing correctly in its specialty, and don’t jump around from era to era, so you know what you’re doing and why things happened. He taught me to be an individual musician.

“On my solos, within my limitations, I played a little like Art Tatum at the beginning. Then I started to follow my own fantasy, looking for something that would identify me. How can I put in a bata drum? How can I change the bass around to make it more Latin? How can I use more jazz harmony, because it’s richer? And how can I put Yoruba cantos over the jazz harmony? Little by little, I searched for those answers. I was much criticized for this by Cuban musicians, because they said this isn’t pure. But within my conception, I put it together. I understood already that this was fusion. My father had his fusion, but I was looking for my own. When I made my first record, they wanted to call me Bebo Valdés Jr. I said, ‘My name is Chucho.’ They said, ‘No, it will sell better.’ I said, ‘I don’t want to record, then.’ I was proud of my father’s name, but I wanted to be myself.”

“In the beginning, Chucho played exactly like Oscar Peterson,” says Paquito D’Rivera, confirming Valdés’ self-description. D’Rivera writes vividly about these years in his autobiography, Mi Vida Saxual [My Saxual Life]. He recalls having first heard Valdés play in 1961 at a club called Havana 1900, and made his recording debut in Cuba on a pair of early-’60s LPs called Jesus Valdés Y Sus Combo that contained “primarily boleros and descargas.” In 1964–’65, Valdés and D’Rivera would play jazz with Irakere predecessors El Teatro Musical del Havana and the Orquesta Cubana de Música Moderna.

“As the ’60s went on, he got more into Bill Evans, and Keith Jarrett had a big impact on him,” D’Rivera continues. “But at first he sounded like a continuation of his father’s work. Nobody called him Chucho. They said, ‘This is Bebo’s son.’ Mainly because of Bebo, he was very well respected by the Cuban musicians. Nobody criticized him. Everybody admired him as a musician.”

Bebo Valdés opposed Castro, and left Cuba in 1963 for a new life in Europe. His son remained on the island to pursue his musical studies and raise his own family, unable to communicate with his father and facing severe pressure to renounce his jazz roots.

“Terror can work miracles,” D’Rivera says. “For 17 years, Chucho did not return Bebo’s letters. Bebo told me that he did not blame Chucho. His words were, ‘Chucho was so scared that I understand why he did this.’ But I am glad that now Chucho says he feels like a jazz person, because he was denying this for many years. In the ‘70s, jazz was a four-letter word, and Chucho didn’t want to participate in the Havana Festival. He didn’t say, ‘No, I am not going to participate,’ but he never participated.”

Now a pillar of Cuba’s cultural establishment, Valdés visits his father’s house in Sweden, speaks with him once a week and receives Bebo’s youngest son—his stepbrother—on a regular basis at his house in Cuba. He’s so entrenched in the system that he signed a public letter last April defending Fidel Castro’s imposition of 20-year prison terms on such dissident figures as the poet-writer-journalist Raul Rivera and economists Martha Beatriz Roque and Oscar Espinosa Chepe. He would appear to hold the position of Cuba’s musical chairman of the board. While other groups have been sanctioned for performing in venues that the government considers off-limits or for conveying proscribed lyrics or genres, Irakere has operated in a relatively uncircumscribed manner. Valdés knows the boundaries, and doesn’t cross them.

“I had a lot of friends within the culture—and the state,” he laughs. “That helps. It’s not as bad as is said. It’s important to break the psychological barriers that impede the interchange, without saying names of what it’s about. When Dizzy got together with the Cubans, something different happened. Cuba and the United States have a musical root with a point of departure in Africa. New Orleans was once in Spanish territory, and the connection between the habanera and ragtime is very interesting. They are almost the same thing. The famous ‘Spanish Tinge’ that Jelly Roll Morton said he felt in ragtime wasn’t Latin. It’s the ‘African Tinge,’ the same thing that’s in the habanera.

“The same Africans came to New Orleans and to Cuba. For that reason, it’s very important that the relation between the cultures is not broken. If there is a political problem, it’s a mistake, because it’s holding back development. And at the end, it’s not the product of a country, it’s a universal product. I base what I do in that idea. I hope nothing impedes the communication between North American and Cuban musicians. This is above politics. It’s more interesting than politics.”

“Being apolitical is already a political position,” D’Rivera responds. “I think Chucho doesn’t agree with the Cuban government. But he’s a representative of the Cuban government, even if he’s doing it against his will. He wants to do his music and he doesn’t want to leave, and he has to follow the rules. That’s why I left. I didn’t want to follow those rules.”

“Chucho’s major source of inspiration is in Cuba—the daily life, the smells, the atmosphere,” says Ileana Valdés. “He could never leave that place.”

That being said, Valdés seemed thrilled to have an opportunity to soak up the New York state of mind in an unmediated fashion.

“Last night, I received a lesson listening to Cedar Walton,” he said. “It was fantastic. Jazz is a language. It’s a form of expression. And it’s an idiom at the same time. Cedar did it pure at the maximum level. I also heard that with Tommy Flanagan and Hank Jones. Listening, you learn. One has a seal, a way of identifying oneself that one does not lose. But also, I see change. I’ve got a lot to learn here yet.

“When I play, I’m thinking about rhythm and movement. I can also be very introspective. I admire Bill Evans. But I do something else. I never wanted to be a cabaret pianist. The harmony is the road; you can’t choose another path. It governs improvisation. You can move the harmony around, but the harmony always guides you. You can improvise freely over it, but you can’t forget it. I live studying this. And buying books and music. That’s my life. Nothing else interests me.”


In February, Valdés had just completed an engagement at the Blue Note in Milan with his Cuban quartet and was scheduled to fly into New York to rehearse for a Bronx concert with the Chico O’Farrill Orchestra that would include several duets with the singer Graciela, the sister of Mario Bauza. Plans were afoot to keep the New York Quartet busy during the spring and summer.

However, none of these events transpired. Lifting a suitcase while in tour in Italy, Valdés aggravated a long-standing hernia condition. He returned to Cuba and, advised not to travel for four months, postponed all off-island engagements until the summer, including the Bronx event (D’Rivera filled in) and a series of concerts in Spain with his father.

Valdés didn’t sit still. Within the first month of his recuperation, he recorded an album for the Cuban market with Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, performed with nuevo flamenco singer El Cigalla, and played the opening week of a new club in Havana’s Jazz Plaza  at which the Cuban government plans to present performances.

But it’s hard to say when he’ll return to the United States. And as of this writing, no one is sure when—or if—the New York Quartet will work again.

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