Chucho Valdes: The Music Never Ends
Cole Porter's "Begin the Beguine" was premiered at the musical Jubilee in 1935 and later appeared in the pseudo-biographical 1946 film, Night and Day (sung by Carlos Ramirez)-which was covered famously by many performers, including one of Bebo and Chucho Valdés' greatest influences, Art Tatum. "I was lucky in my musical formation to learn all the Cuban standards, and also how I learned them. Many through Bebo, others through what I heard on the radio and on the records we had at the house. But for me, American musicals were also very important, I learned to watch them with my family. All those movies with Judy Garland and Gene Kelly have been a huge influence and of course we watched them in the original language." "We werehe continuesa very musical family, it wasn't only Bebo. And one of our favorite songs at home was 'Begin the Beguine.' It was a huge success. Everyone in my house sang it."
"I used the rhythm, the beguine, but with variations, and gave it the wink mentioned in the title, starting to be good, a reference to childhood. In the end it is a number with a very Cuban flavor of its own. There is also a spectacular trumpet solo by Molote, one of the most brilliant improvisers I know."
The relationship between Cuba and New Orleans, that is crucial for jazz, is paid a special tribute here, focusing on the Marsalis family. "I met Ellis Marsalis in 1979 at a jazz festival in Mexico," says Valdés. "I was playing with Irakere, and he was amazed at our horn section, with Arturo Sandoval and Paquito D'Rivera, and he told me he was going to tell his sons, who were studying wind instruments, about us. Years later, in 1983 in the North Sea Jazz Festival, a young man whom I had seen playing in Herbie Hancock's quintet came to see me. It was Branford Marsalis, and he told me that his father had spoken a lot about us. My friendship with them started there."
"New Orleans" builds a bridge that has the virtue of summoning both the sounds of Cuba and of the city of Louisiana, with a patch from the horn section that, depending on how you look at it, can be very New Orleans or Havana. In the past, history, says Valdés, has built solid bridges between both cultures: "We must not forget that when the British took Havana in 1762, they exchanged Louisiana for Havana."
Chucho Valdés will be 69 on October 9th, 2010. But his passion for music is still the same as when, in his youth, he eavesdropped on the Voice of America broadcasts or when he would listen to radio broadcasts by Horacio Hernández (father of the drummer of the same name), a real sentimental education for several generations of Cubans: "He was an incredible source of information, a guiding light, he knew everything." Whenever Chucho arrives in a city, he assails the few record shops left (he's still looking for records from bassist Sirone, one of Hernández' latest recommendations), and he always asks friends and acquaintances for recommendations. That is how, almost four years ago now, somebody recommended he listen to a pianist who was already setting people talking back then: Vijay Iyer.
"This guy is awesome. I listen to him all the time. It's fantastic. It is one of the few things I've heard recently that have had an impact on me." What has Iyer got to do with it here and now? "This song has the vibe that the pianist left in me after hearing him, and I mixed it with Yansá, a very important Yoruba entity. I had never written a thing in these time signatures, and then I have noticed that he plays a lot in these signatures; the idea came to me and I gave it our Afro-Cuban sound, because the rhythmic legacy of Yoruba music lends itself very well to being mixed with these things, giving the music a distinctive sound, Africanizing it."
"Yansá" also puts the focus on Dreiser Durruthy, a musician who had played years ago in a cut on one of Valdés' records, New Conceptions (Blue Note, 2003), and who sings in the Lucumí language, "the heart of Santería." "He is the most outstanding musician of the new Cuban generations. He knows all of the street folk music, but he is also a dancing and percussion graduate from the ISA [Instituto Superior de Arte]. So he has two things that are very difficult to combine: he is a street santero and, at the same time, he has a comprehensive academic education. He has two diplomas." The combination of Durruthy with the quartet percussionist, Yaroldi Abreu, Valdés says, "is magic and gives a unique flavor to the band." When suggesting that his voice sounds timeless, Valdésthat it is contemporary but can also sound aged, Valdés confirms: "You tell someone that this voice, with the flavor it has, belongs to a singer who is 80 years old and he believes it.."
"Julián" is dedicated to Valdés' younger son, who will be four in October, 2010. Is there a slight resemblance, perhaps, to Keith Jarrett and his American quartet? "In fact, it's my favorite period of his work," confirms Valdés. "With regards to the standards, his original music suggests something else harmonically, and he also improvised differently then. I don't mean that I don't like the standards played by Jarrett, because I have all of his albums, I really like them a lot, and I consider him one of the greatest pianists of all times; but I will say that I prefer his original music, songs like 'My Song,' which is very nice. His records were incredible in those days, either solo or with his two quartets, the American and the European oneFacing You (ECM, 1971), Belonging (ECM, 1974), The Köln Concert (ECM, 1975), Death and The Flower )Impulse!, 1974)to me, that was the best. There was an incredible freshness and sparkle on those records. I do not know how many thousands of times I have listened to them, so many times that I've learned all the solos. I listened to them with Paquito [D'Rivera], who had all his records, and I recorded them on tape."