Friday, October 15, 2010

Chucho Valdés & The Afro-Cuban Messengers @ SF Jazz

Rebeca with Chucho Valdés
There are few musicians in the world today who command such international respect and admiration as Chucho Valdés. His extraordinary career is a testament to all things that are good in the world of music: talent, virtuosity, endless creativity and a willingness to reinvent oneself, just to name a few. Last Monday, October 11th I witnessed a performance by the Maestro in his latest incarnation of ensembles, the Afro-Cuban Messengers, on the first stint of several U.S. tour dates - his first appearance here in over seven years.

The sell-out crowd at San Francisco's Herbst Theater was exuberant and giddy with anticipation, partly because our San Francisco Giants had just clinched their division and the smart-phone-crazy audience spontaneously erupted in applause even before the show began. Once Chucho and his band took the stage, we were in for a remarkable yet totally expected roller coaster ride of musical excellence. I say "expected" because with Chucho, we expect nothing less from a man who so truly has embodied the sound of Cuba for nearly half a century; he IS the absolute representation of what Cuban musicianship is all about. The product of classical training, the indelible influence of his father Bebo Valdés and a total command of American jazz, Chucho tore into a two-hour plus set of unimaginable depth and diversity and had people on the edge of their seats with his extraordinary Irakere-era pieces, newly transformed for smaller ensemble, along with his take on jazz standards combined with the African-infused textures of his homeland. From references to Brubeck, Ellington and Zawinul, Chucho demonstrated why he is regarded as one of the most compelling musicians of any generation as he paid tribute to these and other musical masters. And for those of us die-hard Irakere fans, we were treated to familiar repertoire in a different light, while we got to revel in the largely acoustic format of this smaller incarnation. In fact, the first several numbers featured Chucho and rhythm section only, minus any horns and vocals - a lovely way to start the program.

Chucho with Giants Hall-of-Famer Orlando Cepeda
The band includes some mighty talent in Yaroldy Abreu on congas, who resembles Giovanni Hidalgo in his lightning-fast chops and power, Juan Carlos Rojas on drums, Reynaldo Melián on trumpet (of Gonzalo Rubalcaba fame), saxophonist Carlos Miyares, batá percussionist and vocalist Dreiser Durruthy, and Lázaro Rivero on bass. A last-minute addition to the program was Chucho's sister Mayra Caridad, who sang only one number. There were a few uncomfortable moments, many of them technical as the increasing intensity of the percussion tended to drown out the piano, but overall the extraordinary music and musicianship made up for any minor production issues. A seemingly more daring rhythmic approach in Chucho's writing is evident in this project with his frequent use of odd meter; although we know Cuban music to be inherently danceable, this music is clearly about listening, period. And for all the technical prowess of the man and his music, I sensed something new in him - a more tender, sensitive side than in previous concerts. Perhaps he has tapped into a more spiritual side - there was certainly no shortage of Yoruban liturgical chants and rhythms in the set, yet that repertoire was always a part of the aforementioned Irakere. But his stance at the piano struck many of us - he sat miraculously still for someone playing with so much speed and agility on his instrument, and at times he seemed to sit back and let the band go. Those familiar with his many musical incarnations have to wonder what will come next for Chucho Valdés, and we revel in the possibilities because we know we will be in for a treat, no matter what.

Click here to read my recent review of Chucho's Steps in JazzTimes Magazine.

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