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Ramon Valle: The Amsterdam transplant remains rooted in Cuba

Joan Gannij By

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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."

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