A Big Step for Chucho
The ubiquitous Cuban jazz musician's latest album spans the range of his talents and interests.
Chucho Valdés is one of the big men in jazz, and the adjective applies both to his physical stature and to his art. The Cuban pianist and composer casts a large shadow that has covered Latin music, Latin jazz and straight-ahead jazz. His technique has always had a titanic dimension, and sometimes the issue is how to contain it all within a single performance or CD.
On his latest release, Chucho's Steps, the pianist offers an intriguing panorama of his talent and his taste. He pays tribute to Joe Zawinul, the pianist for the fusion-jazz pioneer band Weather Report, quoting from one of that group's most famous tunes in "Zawinul's Mambo." This is a reminder that Valdés came to the attention of American listeners as the pianist for Irakere, the Cuban fusion-rock band that stunned U.S. listeners who thought that somehow the American blockade of trade with Cuba also blocked the airwaves. Yet Irakere (and Valdés) showed that Cuba's musicians were solidly on the front edge of the music's evolution.
Then there is "Danzón," which shifts easily between a sultry jazz ballad and the elegant danzón style of the title. Here Valdés shows his versatility, punctuating the jazz segments with pungent jazz chords and then sliding easily into the delicate, pearly flurry of notes of the traditional Cuban style that his father, Bebo Valdés, famously perfected. Shows the kid was listening to Dad after all.
The musicians on this set are not at all overshadowed by Valdés. On Chuco's "Both Sides," trumpeter Reinaldo Melián Alvarez displays a sparse solo style that bristles with ideas and avoids most of the usual clichés that pollute jazz solos. His range is broad and effortless -- and again unveils a musician who is well tuned in to the evolution of the jazz mainstream. He delivers a full, warm sound on "Begin to Be Good," a tune that combines elements of "Begin the Beguine" and "Lady Be Good."
Tenor saxophonist Carlos Miyares Hernández also catches the ear; he delivers consistently fine solos, first on "Danzón" and then on "Chucho's Steps," a tribute to John Coltrane's jigsaw puzzle of a tune, "Giant Steps." Hernández displays mastery of a sizable vocabulary: fast runs; a throaty tone on slower songs; and a driving voice in the fast, loose sections where the band focuses on rhythmical extrapolation.