The semiology contained on pianist Chucho Valdes' magnificent Chucho's Steps points to the character of the music before the disc has even been taken out of its sleeve. First there's the name of the group and its reference to drummer Art Blakey's ferociously swinging Jazz Messengers. Then there's the title of the opener, "Las dos caras" ("Both Sides"), which hints at the two jazz traditions, American and Afro-Cuban, defining its particular stylean idea reinforced by the image of a crossroads, signalling an intersection of styles, on the front cover. And then there's the title of a second track, "Yansá," which is taken from the orisha who in Cuban mythology controls wind and lightning. For if Yansá is a force of nature, so is Chucho's Steps; its vigor bursts out of the speakers and sweeps everything away before it.
When you've played the album for the first time, and recovered your breath, chances are you'll be going to Valdés' All About Jazz page to check his age. Was this music really conceived and performed by someone who'll be 70 years old in 2011? But youthful longevity runs in the Valdés family: in 2008, Valdés recorded the Latin Grammy-winning Juntas para siempre (Calle 54) with his pianist/bandleader father, Bebo, who was at the time nearly 90.
Whatever it is Chucho and Bebo are imbibing, the Afro-Cuban Messengers are having it too. Trumpeter Reinaldo Melián Álvarez and tenor saxophonist Carlos Manuel Miyares Hernández approach their instruments with the passionate intensity of Jazz Messengers Lee Morgan and Jackie McLean; bassist Lázaro Rivero Alarcón and drummer Juan Carlos Rojas Castro stoke the engine to a giddy temperature, assisted by percussionist Yaroldy Abreu Robles and batá drummer Dreiser Durruthy Bambolé. It's a perfect storm.
And then there's Valdés himself, among the most accomplished jazz pianists from Cuba or anywhere else, and his idiosyncratic blend of influences including Cecil Taylor, McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans, Red Garland, Abdullah Ibrahim and Jelly Roll Morton. Taylor's rocket-fuelled keyboard flights are heard in many of Valdés' solos, along with some of his chromaticism; Tyner's vamping is recalled at the start of "Yansá," evoking his introduction to "Acknowledgement" on saxophonist John Coltrane's A Love Supreme (Impulse!, 1965); the lyrical Evans and block chording Garland are echoed when the music cools a little, as it does midway through the album on the playful "Begin To Be Good" and, briefly, elsewhere; Ibrahim is present on the bluesy "Zawinul's Mambo" and Morton on "New Orleans" (dedicated to the Marsalis family) and "Danzón."
There's one last piece of semiology: the cover shot of Valdés approaching a sun-baked crossroads. With its most literal translation, the image suggests a meeting of the American and Afro-Cuban jazz traditions. Less obviously, it summons up the spirit-charged crossroads of the Delta blues and other folk traditions: dangerous places able to confer great power. Wherever he got it, Valdés has the power, and it's still in the ascendant.
Las dos caras; Danzón; Zawinul's Mambo; Begin To Be Good; New Orleans; Yansá; Julián; Chucho's Steps.
Chucho Valdés: piano; Carlos Manuel Miyares Hernández: tenor saxophone; Reinaldo Melián Álvarez: trumpet; Lázaro Rivero Alarcón: bass; Juan Carlos Rojas Castro: drums; Yaroldy Abreu Robles: percussion; Dreiser Durruthy Bambolé; batá drums, vocals; Mayra Caridad Valdés: vocals.
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In addition to writing and editing for All About Jazz, Chris is editor of the British style/culture/history magazine Jocks&Nerds and consultant Afrobeat historian for Google Arts & Culture and Partisan/Knitting Factory Records.