Tribute to Ernesto Lecuona: Michel Camilo, Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Chucho Valdés

Harry S. Pariser By

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Tribute to Ernesto Lecuona: Michel Camilo, Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Chucho Valdés
Symphony Hall
San Francisco, California
June 21, 2015

Individuals hearing of a tribute concert to be held commemorating the work of legendary musician Ernesto Lecuona might be forgiven for furrowing their brows. For Lecuona—despite his status as an extraordinary pianist, composer and bandleader—is known to but a relative few. One reason for his lack of notoriety is that he came from a different era: His first recordings were made in 1927 while the last were set to wax in 1954. (Lecuona passed away in 1963).

However, the 2015 release of the documentary Playing Lecuona means that his level of recognition is set to rise. Narrated by Dominican Republic-born pianist Michel Camilo, the documentary also includes Cuba's own Chucho Valdes and Gonzalo Rubalcaba. Noting their participation in the film, SFJAZZ asked the trio if they would care to travel to San Francisco to perform an onstage tribute to Lecuona; they assented. As each of these musicians would have no trouble filling clubs and concert halls on their lonesomes, the concert was held in the spacious 2,743-seat Davies Symphony Hall, not far from the SFJAZZ hall.

First up was Camilo, a Dominican Republic-born pianist who, aside from performing regularly with his trio, has appeared onstage with a who's who of contemporary music—artists ranging from Dizzy Gillespie to Tito Puente to Herbie Hancock. Camilo entered, sat down and launched into "San Francisco El Grande," weaving a intricate lace tapestry of sound—delicately paced at times, robust and flowing at others. "¡Y la Negra Bailaba!," from the "Afro Cuban Suite," followed.

Introducing "Para Vigo Me Voy" (called "Say Si Si" in English), Camilo related that Lecuona had been up for an Oscar for that very number but that "White Christmas" had triumphed instead. The tune, twinned with both Spanish and in English lyrics, was widely recorded. Desi Arnaz, who was flexing his vocal cords at the time with Xavier Cugat and his orchestra, recorded it in 1935. Five years later, "Say Si Si" was a hit in the United States for both the Andrews Sisters and for Glenn Miller. The Mills Brothers came out with their own take in 1953, and it has been recorded innumerable times since. Throughout, Camilo played fast and furious on the keys, generating a heady tarpaulin of sound built on a catchy melody twinned with rapid piano runs.

Wearing a suit and donning a red tie with matching red kerchief, the bespectacled Rubalcaba entered as Camilo informed the audience "This is the first time we have played together." Born in Havana in 1963, Rubalcaba initially emerged as a major figure in Afro Cuban jazz during the 1990s, and he has played with the likes of guitarist Pat Metheny and the late bassist Charlie Haden. Touring Europe, he held down the keys for the legendary Cuban ensemble Orquesta Aragon.

Both then sat down at opposite-facing black Steinway & Sons and launched into "Danza Lucumi." Rubalcaba ran his hands up and down the keys, using his right hand to generate an aural cushion of sound. Then it was Rubalcaba's turn to have the stage to himself to perform "Cancion de Luna," "Ni Tu Ni No," "Malagueña" and "Danza Negra," While "Danza Negra" came from his "Afro Cuban Suite" (1957), "Malagueña," from "Suite Española" (1919) expresses the dance rhythms of southern Spain and Portugal. Rubalcaba drew a banquet of percussive tones from his piano, conjuring up shimmering cascades and percussive rolling layers of sound, which at times evoked images such as skating on ice, advancing and receding tides and a sidewinding snake. Concluding, he stood and bowed to enthusiastic applause. Taking the mike, Rubalcaba expounded "It's wonderful to be here in San Francisco and to be part of this tribute. It's a challenge to play this music. He (Lecuona) is a guy with big hands." Stately, shaven headed Valdéz then entered, pressing his hands together in the direction of the audience. Best known as the founder of legendary Cuban band Irakere, Valdéz, has been performing for more than half a century now; he currently gigs with his Afro-Cuban Messengers. Born in 1941, Valdéz is the oldest of the three superstars.

The duo launched in to "Gitanería," yet another tune from the lively "Suite Española." Valdéz produced swirls of sounds while Rubalcaba played fast and furious, concocting a concentrated distillate of sound which rose like a pyramid and even referenced bars from "My Favorite Things" for one brief interlude. Valdéz, meanwhile, riffed off of Rubalcaba. Both men then stood and took a bow, receiving a hearty and heartfelt standing ovation.

Then it was time for Valdéz to shine with a shimmering, evocative and lovingly rendered version of "Estas en mi corazón." Finally, Valdéz constructed a tonal hornet's nest for "Ahí viene el chino."

Taking a bow Valdéz received yet another standing ovation. He then introduced Camilo. After a hug, they dueted on "Canto Siboney," a 1929 cut-time classic performed by the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Bing Crosby, and Percy Faith. The tune was also featured in the score Fellini's "Amarcord" and inspired the 1938 Mexican-Cuban film "Siboney."

Following another standing ovation, the trio took the stage for "La Comparsa," a tune composed for Lecuona's first 1912 ballet which was later used for the climax of "Danzas Afro-Cubanas." ("Afro-Cuban Suite"). The flamboyant Camilo, the rock star of the evening, again took the lead, and Valdéz smiled broadly as he played. At the tune's climax, Valdéz executed some dance steps before the trio linked arms to sustained standing applause.

For the encore, all three tried to sit down on the same piano bench. As there was only room for two, Camilo then evoked widespread hilarity, first by squatting in the air to play before he moved to retrieve a bench. Later, standing hunched over the piano, he poured out melody while Valdés chimed in with chords. A final standing ovation brought a stellar evening to its conclusion.

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