Fernando González on Chucho
Some of the concerts of the 1978 Newport Jazz Festival took
place at Carnegie Hall, including an evening that featured three
pianists: Mary Lou Williams, McCoy Tyner, and Bill Evans. And then,
unannounced, an 11-piece Afro-Cuban jazz-rock band from Cuba called
Irakere walked on stage, led by pianist-arranger-composer Chucho
Valdés. It was a stunning, breathtaking performance. The following
year, a live recording of that night won a Grammy.
Much has happened since. Despite many personnel changes over the
years, Irakere became a musical institution, some of its
members—such as trumpeter Arturo Sandoval and saxophonist Paquito
D'Rivera—having long since become stars in their own right. And
while he still nominally led Irakere until 1998, Valdés also
developed a stellar career of his own, both as a solo artist and
leading small groups. Regardless the setting, certain strands still
run through his music, most notably his exploration of Afro-Cuban
While stressing their common root, in an interview Valdés once made
an intriguing distinction between Latin jazz and Afro-Cuban jazz.
"I consider Afro-Cuban music to be more closely connected to
African music, especially to Santería," he told the late writer and
poet Zoe Anglesey. "Latin music is thought to be closer to the
roots of the son, an Afro-Cuban musical genre that
originated at the turn of the century."
In his most recent work, Chucho's Steps (2010), leading a
group he called the Afro-Cuban Messengers, Valdés glanced back at
his work with Irakere (including directly quoting one of his
classic arrangements), paid tribute to his influences, and
suggested a path forward, especially regarding his work with
"With Irakere, there was a period of experimentation, of finding
how to mix Yoruba rhythms [from the music in the liturgy of the
Afro-Cuban religion known in the United States as Santería] and
adapt them to Cuban dance music and jazz," he explained in a recent
conversation. "Now I have retaken that storyline, but with a
different focus. In Irakere, we treated those rhythms in standard,
conventional [ways] … now, instead of using regular time
signatures, I'm using odd meters—5/4, 7/8, or 11/4. And then I
started to mathematically mix those with regular meters. You can
feel the accents changing. The [rhythmic] sequence might be the
same, but it changes completely with the accents and the different
meters. It's a deeper work than we used to do—but then again, many
years have passed."
In the 1950s, his father—the great pianist and bandleader Bebo
Valdés—pioneered the use in popular music of the batá, the
double-headed drum used in Afro-Cuban religious ceremonies. Chucho
put his own spin to the idea in Jazz Batá, a 1972 piano
jazz-trio album that featured a batá drum in place of
the standard drum kit. It foreshadowed his work with Irakere and
what has since followed.
Last January, Valdés returned to Carnegie Hall, this time leading
his Afro-Cuban Messengers. Tonight, he features yet a different
lineup, a hornless group that comprises members of his Messengers
with new players. It's also a quintet that features three
percussionists, suggesting yet another setting for Valdés to
explore an endlessly fascinating subject.
In Cuban culture "we have very rich African rhythms and a great
variety of drums and percussion [instruments]," Valdés says. "Of
course, we didn't discover that. People like Mario Bauzá, Machito,
and Chano Pozo had already done that, but we wanted to take it in
another direction … and that's what we did."
—Fernando González is an independent music writer and critic whose
work appears regularly in The Miami Herald, JazzTimes, and The
International Review of Music.