Piano, band leader
Due to the political and social embargo the United States imposed upon Cuba the last half of the 1900s, it is not unusual for many people in the United States to shrug at the mention of Jesus “Chucho” Valdès. Yet throughout the world, the Cuban bandleader is considered one of the most influential pianists of his generation. Valdès began playing piano at the age of three and discovered jazz two years later. His father, prominent jazz pianists Bebo Valdès, encouraged his son’s musical path. In fact, the young musician often played with the orchestras his father directed. Age the age of 16 Valdès formed his first jazz trio. He continued to study music and would perform with various jazz groups throughout his early years. While performing with the Orquesta Cubana de Musica Moderna, he decided to form the long enduring and popular group Irakere.
While grooming his son, Chuchito, to take over his role as bandleader, composer and arranger of Irakere, Valdès focused his energies elsewhere. “In Irakere, I developed myself as a composer and arranger, and in the process I let go of the piano a little bit,” Valdès told Ben Ratliff in
Born Jesus Valdès, 1941 in Cuba, to prominent Latin jazz pianists Bebo Valdès.
Valdès began learning piano at age three; formed first jazz trio at age 16; formed Latin jazz band Irakere, 1973; several prominent Latin jazz musicians, including Paquito D’Rivera, Arturo Sandoval, drummer Enrique Pla and bassist Carlos del Puerto, performed with Irakere, 1973-99; formed Crisol with Roy Hargrove, 1996; released over a dozen albums including Babalu Aye, and From Havana with Love.
Addresses: Record company —Bembe Records, P.O. Box 1792, Redway, CA. 95560.
an on-line article at latinolink.com. “I want to play the piano... it’s now or never,” he explained. Not only revered as incredible jazz musicians, Irakere was considered the best salsa dance band in Cuba. Cuban musician Jose Luis Cortes suggested that Irakere could easily be considered the Rolling Stones of Cuba, referring to the super-star rock band.
Since its formation in 1973, Irakere has made quite an impact on Cuban music. “Irakere is one of the bands that symbolize modern Cuba, one of the most popular bands, very much present as part of the Havana cultural scene and all over the island,” said Qbadisc record label owner Neb Sublette during a 1994 National Public Radio interview. Sublette recalls seeing Irakere perform at La Tropical, a giant beer garden in Havana, and watching thousands of “young, mostly black, kids dancing their brains out to this 15-piece band blowing away.”
Irakere, meaning forest or woods, refers to an ancient African region where the greatest African percussionists lived and gathered to play. The music traveled to Cuba as it was settled. The band, sensitive to its roots and associations, incorporates traditional African instruments, like bata drums, and folk songs into their musical repertoire. Along with African influences, Valdès also names jazz greats like pianists Bill Evans and Dave Brubeck as musical inspirations. He has played with American jazz mainstays Wynton Marsalis, David Sanchez and Roy Hargrove. As the president of the Havana Jazz Festival, Valdès often invited these musicians, and many others, to play at their annual festival. During 1996, Valdès and trumpeter Hargrove joined forces to create Crisol, a Cuban-American big band, led by Hargrove. In 1998, Crisol and Valdès won a Grammy in the Latin jazz category. This was Valdès’ second Grammy—he and Irakere won a Grammy in 1979 with their album Live at Newport.
In 1998, Valdès embarked on his most extensive tour of the United States, playing shows in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Washington, DC, Los Angles, California, and St. Paul, Minnesota. That same year, he was asked to perform at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts during Cuban music week that year. Valdès has released over a dozen albums with his signature Cuban jazz quality. “Valdès is the musical patriarch of Cuba, and a master pianist, composer and big-band jazz leader.... Valdès exhaled genres with innovative juxtapositions and seamless virtuosity,” exclaimed Britt Robson in a 1998 Minneapolis Star Tribune concert review.
Because Valdès lived in Cuba he has been unable to sign with an American recording company. But that hasn’t stopped him and Irakere from getting their music out. The 1996 release lAfrocubanismo Live! was recorded in Canada at the inaugural !Afrocuabanismo! Festival in Banff, Alberta, in 1994. Featured on this recording is the legendary Cuban percussionist Jose Luis Quintana Fuerte. Bele Bele en la Habana, released by EMI’s Blue Note Records in June, 1998, is considered Valdès break through album within the United States. The album is, according to Terry Perkins review for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “a fiery, challenging set of tunes that encompasses a wide range of Afro-Cuban musical styles. This recording is a must for anyone who’s interested in Latin jazz—or great keyboard playing.” The Los Angeles Times ’ Don Heckman, however, says the music may throw off some American jazz fans who might be expecting continuity of style in the recording. Valdès was never a musician that stuck to any one style of jazz for long, and Bele Bele en la Habana is no exception.
Irakere’s 1998 release, Babalu Aye, was nominated for a 1999 Grammy award. The album features Cuba’s premiere folkloric singer, Lazaro Ros, in a 14-minute tribute to the Yoruba orisha (deities) Babaku Aye, in the traditional Cuban call and response song style. Original drummer Enrique Pla keeps the beat for new vocalist Jose Miquel. This combination, the liner notes read “strikes an exquisite balance between youthful fire and accomplished wisdom.” While a virtuoso at mixing the musical genres of numerous cultures, Valdès always stayed true to his Cuban heritage. “I’m investigating the African roots of Cuban music. The only way to do it is to stay in Cuba,” he told Time’s Christopher John Farley. “My work is here. They rhythms are here.”
Irakere, CBS, 1979.
Legendary Irakere in London, Ronnie Scott’s, 1987.
Irakere, Blue Note, 1992.
From Havana With Love, Westwind, 1995
Afrocubanismo! Live!, Bembe Records, 1996.
Babalu Aye (contains “Babalu Aye”), Bembe Records, 1998.
Bele Bele en La Habana, EMI Music Canada, 1998.
Los Angeles Times, November 21, 1997; November 23, 1997; June 28, 1998
Minneapolis Star Tribune, June 1998
Newsday, June 1998
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 1998
Time, June 22, 1998
Additional information was provided by the liner notes written by Leonar do Acosta for Bele Bele en La Habana, 1998; from liner notes by Jimmy Durchslag to Babalu Aye, 1998; and from All Things Considered, National Public Radio, November, 11, 1993.
—Gretchen Van Monette
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