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Ramon Valle: The Amsterdam transplant remains rooted in Cuba

Joan Gannij By

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If you surrender to the music, then the people are going to feel this. It doesn't matter if you play one note or a thousand.
After transplanting himself to Amsterdam 20 years ago, Ramon Valle's island roots still run deep. Valle was raised in the eastern part of Cuba, in Holguin, in a musical family, with a trumpeter father, a mother who sang and recited poems, and five sisters; four who played piano, and another who was a multi-instumentalist, playing saxophone, clarinet and flute.. He started studying piano and trumpet at age seven, under the tutelage of his father, and muses. "I was playing the trumpet, while playing the piano with my left hand," conjuring a memorable image.. He discovered Gerry Mulligan and Louis Armstrong when their recordings got passed around by friends of his father. "These days people can access music so easily on the internet. In my time I had to wait to borrow an LP or a CD, then I would listen to it, and then practice learning it. I didn't have time to transcribe. I had the whole thing in my head, at my fingertips. And then I had to give it back." "We would listen to the radio and sometimes in the middle of the night when the signals come and go, you could get a connection to a station in America. I'd be listening and hear a few chords, then it would fade, then come back again. It was a kind of exercise. We didn't have the possibility to listen to the whole thing. You had to use your imagination. Ba da da da da, da da doo da."

His father, who passed earlier this year, soon followed by Valle's mother, was a member of a local orchestra and there were always jam sessions at the house. Ramon speaks of descarga, which is an improvised jam session (descargar means to discard, let go, purge, or release). He contrasts the structure of his classical studies at the conservatory in Holguin, with the freedom he experienced at home with his father's music. "There was no learning, just playing, being there," Valle has just completed a series of gigs throughout the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany as part of his Celebration Tour of 20 years in Holland, with compatriots. Bassist Omar Rodriguez Calvo from Matanzas and drummer Liber Torriente, from Havana.

We are sitting in the café of Amsterdam's historic Concertgebouw and Chopin is suddenly part of the background music. Valle remarks how "improvising came so natural to the Polish composer, and Bach, too. He was able to do whatever he wanted with the piano. We have to remember that music is all about communication and not about this scale or this chord. As a jazz musician, you have to take risks. We have the mission to translate the music to the people. The music comes through you. You are channeling it, and you are like a translator. It's not about ego or what you learned at the conservatory, and all the notes you played yesterday. It's about information now, what are you going to play today. If you surrender to the music then the people are going to feel this. It doesn't matter if you play one note or a thousand. I take it very serious, but it's a joy. I'm at the same party as you are and I want to enjoy it."

Each gig certainly seems like a party, and his exuberance is contagious. "Every time that I play, I'm singing on the inside, and often scatting on the outside. Sometimes I feel like a troubadour, except I tell stories without using words. The piano is a beautiful instrument, but I don't see it as an instrument. It's like a choir or a mini orchestra. You have a combination of chords and they can make any sound that you want, whereas the cello or a trumpet has one specific sound. I play the piano like a trumpet or a saxophonist, not a pianist." He elaborates further. "It's a conversation, like a dolphin soaring through the waves," he moves his hands up for emphasis. "I don't see the piano as being on the floor, but to be played like a horn. Sitting down, you can get used to the notes, like typing, because it's easy to disconnect with mechanical memory. With piano it is easy to fall into that trap. So I stand, I move, and with every note I play I'm singing, seeing a film before me. There's a different film for every song. If I had the time and the money, I'd like to be able to show the people the visual images that I have in my head, along with the music."

When he was considering Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah for his Take Off CD, the challenge was how to bring the same amount of power without the lyrics. "I knew I wanted to make a story, telling it the slow way so you can hear the blues and a bit of the gospel. I didn't want an arrangement with all the clichés. I would kill myself, ciao! It's not only the composition of Leonard Cohen, it's more than that. It's the cosmos. You can feel the freedom to go crazy and play in an abstract way." How did he approach that? "First I listen to every detail of the arrangement, then I dream. Then if I have enough inspiration I can express myself. I want to stand 100% for the song and if I can't, I don't do it cause it would be fake."

We have the usual conversation about the industry's urge to compare and to categorize musicians, which Valle eloquently takes on. "I'm a Cuban musician whose music falls into the jazz category but it touches many other genres, and borders on many other musical forms." He's also a jazz festival fixture who gives workshops and composes and has ten CDs under his belt. While it may be flattering to be compared to Monk or Miles, he strives to be himself. "What I do is to be really honest about the sound that I hear in my head. I don't try to hide myself in the Cuban scene or the Jazz scene. I want to play and let the music speak for itself." When his album Levitando made its debut in 1993, Chucho Valdes called him ''the greatest talent among our young pianists.'' Ramon shrugs and says: ""They call me Jazz/Latin, or Latin/Jazz. I'm a musician, and whatever they want to call this, I'm fine."

Doron Solomon, conductor of the Israel Sinfonietta Beer Shiva summed it up: "Sometimes things come up that are not Cuban, are not jazz, are just him. I don't even want to label it because then I would do it injustice. And of course, every artist is different. He's got a lot of imagination, and a lot of courage. Sometimes he's looking for something, and you think, nothing happens. And then at once it comes out, a flower. A musical flower." Valle has fond memories of his time in Israel. ""Everyone dreams of course, and my dream was to play piano solo with an orchestra, different orchestras. I got a call that a guy from Israel was looking for me, and eventually met Doron who came to one of my concerts. He said, "Will you come and play with us. I like that you take risks."

Valle met Roy Hargrove at the North Sea Jazz Festival a few years back, and recalls: "He walked in while we were rehearsing and stuck around to listen. Later I invited him to play with me and we met up again in Cuba." Hargrove observed: "Ramon is such a great talent. He's got a good touch and amazing dexterity and he knows how to play songs. It's really a pleasure listening to him and playing with him as well. There's just so many bags he can reach from."

Another bag he reaches into regularly is his Tai Chi practice, which he has been doing for 11 years. When I asked what attracted him, he replied: "I play piano and I work with my body. At first I thought Aikido, or something to do with the martial arts. Then a friend suggested Tai Chi so I said OK. I didn't want to fight with anyone and I found out that it was much deeper; about life, communicating, standing up straight and keeping everything in line. When I was a child I was curious about martial arts. I went to watch some boxers---the trainer knew my father and said bring him around. We were walking home and my father said, 'forget about it, I don't want to see my son beating people up. You are a musician.' I was disappointed." Valle does tend to get physical onstage as he scats along and engages in dynamic duels with his sidemen, who can clearly hold their own and more. He often gets up to dance around or stand at half mast, levitating above the keyboards like a dervish. If one were to come up with some words to describe the dynamic musician, they'd start with the letter e: enthusiastic, ecstatic, exuberant, emotional, and exhilarating.

He's continuing his anniversary tour throughout the Netherlands, an example of his diverse virtuosity: some gigs are with Dutch trumpeter Eric Vloeimans, others are solo departures, and one includes an evening of Porgy & Bess. His last CD, The Art of Two, is a collaboration with his cousin Orlando "Maraca" Valle}, the Grammy-nominated flutist/composer who played for years with Irakere. A celebration of their family ties and their love for music. He is currently recording his next his next CD (still untitled), for release in early 2018, which he says "will feature compositions with a slightly different sound, not only piano, but also keyboard and vocoder." Drummer Jamie Peet will join bassist Omar Rodriguez Calvo on the project.

The family ties and roots are now strongly planted in the Netherlands which came about through a series of coincidences and fateful gigs that began in Havana. As Valle remembers, "a journalist and the director of the Jamboree club came to my house for a concert, and after, they wanted me to come to Barcelona. But you know how it goes, people get back on the plane and forget. So I went to Mexico and then I got the invitation. When I played in Barcelona I was approached by a Dutch lady who bought 40 CDs and said you have to go to Holland. He took her invitation seriously and took off for the Dutch capital. It would take a while before he was welcomed into the local scene. "When you live in America, people know who you are. But when you're from Cuba, nobody knows your work. Cuban musicians have much talent but we don't have a market to promote us."

When he first landed in the Netherlands, nobody cared. "The confrontation was something I had never felt. After my first appearance at the North Sea Jazz Festival, people hugged me afterward and I felt proud. I thought, wow, this feels special." One gig led to another and Valle was soon playing the Bimhuis and other venues. Through another series of fateful occurrences, he crossed paths with 'a beautiful Dutch woman' who would become his life and music partner, and the mother of their son and daughter. Ramon Valle remains beloved by Dutch audiences and during one of his spring gigs at the Concertgebouw (in an improvised jazz cellar), he improvised a whimsical version of a Dutch folk classic, ''On the Canals of Amsterdam'' that turned into a spontaneous singalong. Afterwards as the well-wishers departed, he reflected on his second home and said: "I've learned many things here, to live in a country like the Netherlands with its wind and rain, and to come from a warm summertime country like Cuba. But both of them are right, and when you combine the power that each brings, you get really strong. Yes, the light and the sun makes a difference, but you need the structure in the Netherlands. You have to prepare for the winter or you die. In Cuba, you're always in the present." He illustrates his point by doing a spirited intro to Beethoven's Fifth, Duh Duh Duh Daah! And then segues into a verse of the Buena Vista Social Club hit, Chan Chan. It's like yin and yang."

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