Piano Man – Cuban maestro Chucho Valdés returns to Miami

In his 70 plus year career, the great Cuban jazz pianist Chucho Valdés has gone from  revolutionary to institution. Both aspects will be showcased Friday, when Valdés leads Irakere 45, a tribute to the groundbreaking Cuban jazz fusion band, at the Adrienne Arsht Center. The almost sold out show, which launches a U.S. tour that includes 12 days at New York’s legendary jazz club The Blue Note, reprises the 2015 debut outing of the Irakere tribute group, which played the Fillmore Miami Beach.

That was a groundbreaking show, breathtaking for Valdés’ spectacular artistry, and for the generations of Cuban musicians – and Cuban cultural luminaries – who gathered to hear one of the island’s greatest artists. Gonzalo Rubalcaba, the pre-eminent pianist in the post-Chucho generation, and lives in South Florida and teaches at the University of Miami, was in the audience, as was Chucho’s pianist son, Chuchito. Saxophonist Carlos Averhoff, an exile and original member of Irakere who’d long been bitterly opposed to any rapprochement with the island or its musicians, startled everyone when he joined his former bandmate onstage.

This post revamps the story and interview I did with Chucho before that concert. He spoke not only about the legacy of Irakere, but about the vital, ongoing tradition of Cuban music of which he is such a towering part.

“In this band right now there are four different generations of musicians,” Valdés said. “From me the founder to this new generation.”

In 1973 he and the other restless young guns who founded Irakere were the new generation, aching to play something different. Valdés and his cohorts, who included trumpet player Arturo Sandoval and saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera, mixed popular and traditional Cuban music – son, conga, danzon – with classical and jazz, with driving rock and funk. Impeccably schooled, supremely talented, Irakere combined erudition and soul, ferocious technical chops and equally fierce grit onstage. They exploded on the scene in Cuba with their first song, Bacalao con pan, a dance hit; then blew up a Newport Jazz Festival concert at Carnegie Hall in 1978, winning a Grammy the following year, turning the world’s ears towards Cuba for the first time since the island’s pre-Revolutionary musical golden age.

Chucho Valdes and members of Irakere 40
Chucho Valdes and members of Irakere 40

“Today they talk about before and after Irakere in Cuba,” Valdés says. “They were musicians with this incredible academic education. But we were also shaped by popular music, dance music, folkloric music – and jazz and symphonic music. What [Irakere] did was develop the danzon, the conga and the son, and renewed them.”

Cuban music historian Ned Sublette said Irakere opened the way for Cuban music to move forward, calling them the template for the dense, multi-rhythmic, horn-driven sound of timba, which would define Cuban dance music in the 90s and is still popular.

“It was a new sound,” said Sublette. “This was a new kind of music that drew on Cuban son, traditional Cuban dance music, but it had the punch of electric instruments. It had a different kind of drive.” One which Sublette says veered in another direction from the mambo-rooted salsa created in New York in the seventies.

“It was a very different take on how to extend Cuban music into the future,” Sublette said.

Irakere was overtly Afro-Cuban; it incorporated rumba, as well as the bata drums used in Santeria ceremonies and a plethora of other percussion. Adopting the island’s roots music helped them bring jazz, which under socialism was branded as the music of the imperialist Northern enemy, back to Cuba.

“They found a way to recap jazz as Afro-Cuban music, which was politically palatable,” said Sublette. “In doing so they created something of great value, a new way of playing Afro-Cuban jazz.”

Now Irakere’s once radical music is part of the curriculum at the schools that produced the young musicians in Valdés’ current ensemble.

“They studied it as if it were a book, or a technical method to develop improvisation,” said Valdés. “This is music that inspired them. They take it as a reference, they feel like they’re part of it, and afterwards they do their own work.”

A nine-piece band will accompany Valdés Friday on Irakere classics like Bacalao Con Pan, Misa Negra, and a thrillingly amped-up version of the jazz standard Stella By Starlight, impishly titled Estela va a estallar (Stella is going to explode.) They’ll also play newer songs like Yansa and Lorena’s Tango. Cuban singer Aymée Nuviola will join Valdés for a few songs.

Irakere’s line-up changed over the years, sometimes for political reasons. D’Rivera defected in 1980, and Sandoval in 1990; both have enjoyed highly successful careers in the United States. Averhoff left for Miami in 1997, living here until his death in 2016. In the early 90’s, Valdés began focusing on his own playing and on smaller groups, and left Irakere in 1997. The group disbanded in 2005. The idea for the [2015] tribute tour came from a concert Valdés organized at the 2014 Jazz Festival in Barcelona.

Chucho Valdes
Chucho Valdes

Irakere’s late 70’s success in the U.S. came during a brief softening of the long hostility between this country and Cuba. In 2015, shortly after then president Obama opened up relations with the island, producing a renaissance of musical collaborations, Valdés spoke optimistically about the value of opening up to each other.

“No type of music should be isolated from the rest of the universe,” he says. “Fusion is taking nourishment from different cultures that are compatible with the one you have. So this is what really creates evolution and development.”

Valdés praised his former Irakere colleagues’ artistry and virtuosity. He also paid tribute to their predecessors, such as the 1930s and 40s Orquesta Arcaño y Sus Maravillas, which boasted mambo creator Israel “Cachao” Lopez on the double bass, for a similar combination of formal and instinctive power. “They were musicians who could play any kind of music,” he says.

He is just as admiring of the players coming out of Cuba today. “All of them have a fantastic academic musical formation,” he said. “There are great talents in this new generation – there are geniuses there too.”

Valdés background makes him uniquely able to appreciate the combined power of tradition and innovation. His father was the pianist, composer and arranger Bebo Valdés, one of the towering figures of Cuban music in the 50s. (Literally as well as musically – he was over six and a half feet tall.) Bebo led the orchestra at the famed Tropicana nightclub, worked with the likes of Beny More and Nat King Cole. As a child, he once played with the pianist and composer Ernesto Lecuona; and later played for Armando Maria Roméu, another pivotal bandleader.

Bebo began teaching Chucho when he was just three. The younger Valdés played in his father’s orchestra, and absorbed music from the stream of stellar musicians who came through their home.

Bebo and Chucho Valdes
Father and son – Cuban pianists Bebo and Chucho Valdes

“Perhaps the greatest prize that I’ve received is to have had the father I had,” said Valdés. “I’m a simple follower. My father is a poet. I’m just a novelist.”

Bebo left Cuba in 1960, when Chucho was 18, and the two were estranged for several decades. They came together to play for the 2000 film Calle 54, the start of a rapprochement that led to the 2009 album, Juntos para Siempre (Together Forever), for Calle 54 Records, co-founded by Miami’s Nat Chediak. The reunion with his father and his roots was one of the most powerful experiences of Valdés’ life.

“There was much more than music there – there was love, respect, tradition, the memory of the times we lived together,” he said. In 2010 he moved to Spain, where he still lives with his wife and young son, to be near his father, who passed away in 2013 at age 94. “I was with him until the last moments of his life,” Valdés said. “Sharing the years we lost – but at the end we got them back.”

That his father enjoyed a late career renaissance starting at age 78 may account for Valdés laughingly calling himself “a baby.”  He wants to write a jazz symphony, like his father, George Gershwin, and Duke Ellington. And he remains continually inspired by music.

“Every day shows me that I still have to learn so much – so, so, so much,” he said. “A teacher once told me that music is an eternal spiral. When you think you’ve arrived, that’s when you’re finished.”

Chucho Valdés and Irakere 45 perform at 8pm Friday at the Adrienne Arsht Center’s Knight Concert Hall. Very limited remaining tickets are $45 to $125 at arshtcenter.org or 305-949-6722.

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