Chucho Valdés - Biography

From the intensely musical island of Cuba, Chucho Valdés is perhaps the most prominent and influential pianist to emerge from the post-revolution milieu. On October 9, 1941, Jesús Dionisio Valdés was born in Quivicán on the outskirts of Havana, destined to follow in his father’s footsteps. Bebo Valdés, an accomplished pianist and composer who led his own popular orchestra in Havana in the forties and fifties, was a master of Afro-Cuban jazz. Chucho was playing the piano at the age of three and by five he received formal lessons. He began studies at a musical conservatory at eight and at fifteen he was performing with a jazz trio.


Coming of age in 1950s Havana, Chucho was surrounded by music, nightlife, and action. The musical capital of Latin America was awash with music from huge dance orchestras to smaller folkloric groups and intimate solo, duo, and trio performances in salons or hotel lobbies. Moreover, American swing and jazz were part of the musical ambiance and popular singers such as Nat King Cole performed regularly in Havana. Indeed, Bebo Valdés and his orchestra backed Cole up, as they did Dizzy Gillespie and other visiting musical luminaries. In the later 1950s, Chucho began to perform with his father’s orchestra, Sabor de Cuba, which was the house band at Cuba’s fabled Tropicana nightclub.


The revolution came on New Year’s Day of 1959. Cuba’s music scene changed as American tourism died out and a campaign against perceived decadence commenced. Bebo decided to leave Cuba for Sweden in 1961 when he was told his orchestra was no longer his, and that his arrangements and music belonged to the group. Meanwhile Chucho began playing in the Salón Internacional at the Hotel Havana Riviera, which had been formerly owned by notorious gangster Myer Lansky and then taken over by Fidel Castro as his de-facto headquarters.


Many of the large orchestras continued through lean times in the early 1960s and folkloric rhythms such as the Mozambique and guapachá were re-invented, usurping the cha cha cha in popularity. In 1963, along with singer Amado “Guapachá” Borcelá, Chuco made his first recording. A rousing set of ten songs exploring the new trends, Guapacha en La Habana (1963 Arerito) by Chucho Valdés y Su Combo, was originally released on LP by the Cuban state label, Areito, and was reissued through Warner Jazz in Spain on CD in 2007.


In 1964, Chucho made two more recordings as Jesús Valdés & Combo for the Areito label. On Jazz Nocturno (1964 Areito) and Descarga (1964 Areito), he was joined by Paquito D’Rivera on saxophone and clarinet, and Carlos Emilio Morales on guitar (both whom would later join Valdés as original members of Irakere). These two releases were reissued as The Complete 1964 Sessions (2007 Malanga Music).


Building his reputation on rock solid technique, blazing speed, and an uncanny sense of rhythm and counterpoint, Chucho was asked to join the Orquesta Cubana de Música Moderna. The all-star cast included D’Rivera and Morales along with Juan Pablo Torres on trombone, Arturo Sandoval on trumpet, and Cachaito Lopez on bass. Participation required performing soundtrack music to Cuban cinema, and thus they learned to work with a symphony orchestra. Their fusion of Afro-Cuban jazz with pop and rock can be heard on the collection of reissued recordings Orquesta Cubana de Música Moderna (2008 Malanga Music).


Continuing to work in differing aggregations, Chucho put together a trio with talented bassist Carlos Del Puerto and singer/percussionist Oscar Valdés to record Jazz Batá (1972 Egrem). A deeply rhythmic excursion, it was one of the first times that the two-headed batá drums used for sacred Afro-Cuban rituals were used in a jazz mode (in this recording, they take the place of the trap drums). Expanding that trio with drums and horns, Chucho unleashed the revolutionary group Irakere in 1973.


From the beginning, Irakere blazed its own trail. The recordings they made in the 1970s changed the nature of both Afro-Cuban jazz and popular Cuban music. Jazz musicians in Europe and America sang their praises, and they became Cuba’s first post-revolution group to ascend to the world stage as they toured internationally. The group featured Paquito D’Rivera on sax and clarinet, and Arturo Sandoval on trumpet, both of whom would defect and mount successful careers as jazz artists. Irakere bassist Carlos del Puerto joined Cubanismo in the 1990s, a group that helped re-introduce the world to the classic Cuban son and paved the way for the Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon.


With Chucho as the bandleader, keyboard player, and principal arranger, Irakere enjoyed a brief thaw in US-Cuban relations in 1978 and played to enthusiastic response at the Newport Jazz Festival. By that time, they were already well known in Latin America for their up-tempo jazzy dance tunes such as “Bacalao con Pan.” Their 1979 self-titled release on Columbia records in the US placed them at the vanguard of fusion jazz and lit the spark for what would later become a Latin Jazz phenomenon. By the 1980s, Chucho had ascended to such a level of respect in Cuba that he became the island’s de-facto Minister of Music. While maintaining a rigorous touring schedule and recording with Irakere, he collaborated with dozens of artists young and old, and served as a mentor to a whole new generation of young jazz lions.


The varying and constantly changing line-up of Irakere in the 1980s included flautist Orlando “Marca” Valle, who became one of Cuba’s premier bandleaders in the 1990s, and José Luis Cortés who founded NG La Banda, the group that began the timba-salsa movement that forever changed Cuban dance music. On tour with Irakere in the US in 1995, Chucho was reunited with his father in a remarkable performance at San Franciso’s Great American Music Hall. After more than 30 years apart, they seized the opportunity to show their greatness by playing together on dual pianos. Chucho said his father was his musical idol and that he strove “to play the things on piano that I thought impossible.”


Chucho’s first international release as a solo artist came in 1991 with his heady, virtuosic Solo Piano (World Pacific) in which he shows no fear of stepping out. The jazz world recognized that his sophistication went beyond his mastery of rhythm and technique, entering deep into the subtleties of harmonic interplay. In 1996, he joined American jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove’s group Crisol for a critically acclaimed recording, Habana (1997 Verve), and an extensive international tour. The album won a Grammy for Best Latin Jazz Performance.


Having performed with and admired the superbly sensuous singer Omara Portuondo throughout the years, Chucho recorded a challenging piano and vocals set with her entitled Desafíos (1997 Nubenegra). They continued to work together after Portuondo’s profile rose from her participation in the Buena Vista Social Club. He also appeared as a guest, performing on recordings by his father, guitarist Barbarito Torres, Arturo Sandoval, nueva trova legends Pablo Milanes and Silvio Rodriguez, Leo Brouwer, Orquesta America, Bobby Carcasses, Ry Cooder, and Brazilian composer Ivan Lins.


Looking for a new musical direction, he signed with the storied jazz label Blue Note and stripped down to a lean, mean musical quartet for Bele Bele en La Habana (1998 Blue Note). Much like his highly acclaimed extended run at the Village Vanguard in June of 1998, the recording highlights Valdés’ incendiary take on some Cuban standards, original compositions, and even a Gershwin tune. Anchored in a monster rhythm section, he gives another stellar performance of deeply rooted Afro-Cuban jazz tunes and Latinizes some Ellington and Gershwin for the following year’s Briyumba Palo Conga (1999 Blue Note).


Much like his annual week of performances with Irakere at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London, which began in the 1980s and energized the scene, Chucho Valdés hoped to do the same in New York City with annual performances at the Village Vanguard. His scorching quartets indeed energized the newly emerging Latin jazz renaissance in New York, but after 2001 the political climate changed making it virtually impossible for Cuban nationals to travel to the US This effectively ending the Vanguard tradition. However, one particularly tasty performance from 1999 was captured and released as Live at the Village Vanguard (2000 Blue Note) and earned him another Grammy for Best Latin Jazz Performance.


Chucho Valdés Solo: Live in New York (2001 Blue Note) was recorded during a performance Lincoln Center’s Kaplan Penthouse in 1998. A marvelous showcase for his diverse talent, he improvises his way through a set of Latin classics and a couple originals. For his next Blue Note project, he turned his attention to classical music with Fantasia Cubana: Variations on Classical Themes (2002 Blue Note). Infusing themes by Chopin, Debussy, and Ravel with rhythmic energy and propulsive percussion, Valdés hints at a new genre, Afro-Classical. New Conceptions (2003 Blue Note) followed with a wide palette of classical, Afro-Cuban, and post-bop jazz.


Chucho Valdés’ long and winding road has led him to perform in more than fifty countries. He’s played in most all the prestigious jazz festivals and concert halls in Europe, the Americas, and Asia. A musician’s musician, he has played with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Wynton Marsalis, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Michel Legrand, Carlos Santana, George Benson, Taj Mahal, Max Roach, and Gato Barbieri, as well as every and any prominent Cuban musician of his time. One can be certain that they all remember the musical moments they shared.


Chucho Valdés clearly belongs to the same rarefied realm as legendary Cuban pianist and composer Ernesto Lecuona and jazz legends such as Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum, McCoy Tyner, and Cecil Taylor. Along with his band-mates in Irakere, he forever changed the direction and conception of Afro-Cuban jazz in the 1970s and 1980s. In his solo and collaborative projects of the 1990s and the current century, he has set the standard for modern Latin Jazz. His contributions to the evolution of Cuban music and jazz at large are undeniable. But above all the sheer joy and creativity he brings to each and every performance remains an eternal gift. His legacy is his profound influence — past, present, and on generations of musicians to come.

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