Reviewed by Christopher Dennison
This past Sunday, April 1st, KUVO listeners were treated to a very special edition of Salsa Con Jazz, hosted by Jimmy Trujillo. The great Cuban jazz pianist Chuchito Valdes and his trio of bassist Steve Sachse and drummer Rafael Monteagudo, with special guest Denver’s own Jose Espino on congas, donated their time to KUVO’s Spring Membership Drive with a live performance in the Phyllis A. Greer Performance Studio on their way back to DIA following a couple nights performing in Aspen.
Valdes comes from a bit of a musical dynasty back in Cuba (to borrow a phrase KUVO CEO Alfredo Cruz used to describe him on air); his father, Chucho Valdes, is a great Latin jazz pianist and his grandfather is influential pianist/bandleader Bebo Valdes. He incorporates his background and knowledge of the jazz tradition into the innovative music he creates. He also spoke very briefly between numbers about the importance of both preserving the jazz tradition that arose from the cotton fields in the southern United States around the turn of the 20th Century and elevating this music into the highly respected world-class genre it is today, as Alfredo translated. In addition to exploring the dichotomy of preservation and pioneering progression, Valdes’s music engages both North American styles and styles originating in his island home, continuing to cover new ground in a conversation between Latin music and jazz that has been going on since the 1910s with Jelly Roll Morton’s incorporation of the ubiquitous “Spanish tinge” in his jazz.
From the very start, Valdes captured and held the room’s attention.
The sheer physicality of his playing was the first thing most audience members noticed. The excitement of watching him kept the audience enthralled for the entire set. The group’s first piece was based on a simple mambo bass figure and chord progression that allowed Valdes a lot of room to move around the piano and truly shine. Valdes’s percussive approach to the piano is notable, showcased when he spent a few bars playing polyrhythms on a single note – proving his understanding of the piano as a member of the percussion family first and foremost. He also exhibited some impressive runs, somewhat reminiscent of Art Tatum. The following piece maintained the Latin rhythmic feel, this time with a more subdued attitude, which inspired Valdes to show the softer side of his touch. He ended this piece with a short unaccompanied piano section, featuring delicate, fluttering runs. Another highlight was Sachse’s expressive bass solo in this second number.
The third selection was a swinging twelve-bar blues, with began with some explosive crashes from Monteagudo, who was also featured trading fours with Valdes. Valdes showed his versatility during his solo, utilizing both heavy, syncopated phrases at times and a touch as light as a kitten running down the uppermost octaves of the piano at other times. The group closed their set with their exuberant, bouncy rendition of Billy Strayhorn/Duke Ellington classic “Take the A Train,” in which Valdes used rolling crescendos to transform his piano into the train itself, barreling uptown into 125th Street Station in Harlem.
Overall, the group confirmed for that audience that they are doing what they do for the right reason: to have a great time, making great music. Despite their having had a tremendous week of performances and travel with very little time to rest, one could tell the musicians were really enjoying themselves and glad to be helping out KUVO. And when the band has as much fun as the Chuchito Valdes Quartet did Sunday afternoon, the audience always does, too.