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Arts & Entertainment - July 26, 2013

Playing with borders

Chucho Valdes and his quintet to perform the Stanford Jazz Festival season finale

by Elena Kadvany

Chucho Valdes grew up in a house constantly full of music and musicians.

Born in Quivican, Cuba, he had his immediate family: father Bebo Valdes, the pianist, bandleader, composer, arranger and central figure in the 20th-century Cuban music scene; and his mother, Pilar Rodriguez, a singer who loves Bach preludes. And then there were the Cuban artists, overflow from Bebo's work as assistant director and arranger for Havana's famed Tropicana Club. American musicians such as Roy Haynes, Bill Jackson and Buddy Rich often dropped by.

"And I was always present when they came to visit," said Valdes, now 71, speaking through an interpreter from his home in Spain. "So that's how my childhood developed."

Valdes' own music — in particular his newest album, "Border-Free," — is a distinct product of that environment. "Border-Free" pays tribute to the people, places and moments that have shaped him musically. Local audiences will get to hear songs from the album on Aug. 10, when Valdes performs with his quintet at Bing Concert Hall to close this season's Stanford Jazz Festival.

Valdes started to play piano with his father at the age of 3. When he was 5 years old — too young to attend music school — his parents hired a classical piano teacher to further his musical education. Bebo also taught his son Cuban folk and jazz music, immersing him in many worlds at once.

"I had my feet in the classical world; I was studying classical piano," Valdes said. "I was immersed in the jazz world at the Tropicana, and at age 14, I started my first trio."

After studying at the Municipal Music Conservatory of Havana, Valdes started recording with his father's group, Orquesta Sabor de Cuba ("sabor" meaning flavor or taste of Cuba). He was 15 years old.

He went on to form Irakere, one of Cuba's most famous Latin jazz bands, in 1973 and later won five Grammy Awards and three Latin Grammy Awards for his solo work.

"Border-Free," released on July 9, is true to its name. With a quintet of musicians dubbed The Afro-Cuban Messengers and guest saxophonist Branford Marsalis, Valdes takes listeners on a musical journey from Cuba to Morocco, from the 19th to the 21st centuries, referencing flamenco, Bach, Miles Davis.

The album opens with "Congadanza," a high-energy, upbeat piece that pays tribute to Maria Cervantes, daughter of the Cuban composer and pianist Ignacio Cervantes.

The song also exhibits the beauty of so many musicians playing at once, but together. "Border-Free" is Valdes' second release with The Afro-Cuban Messengers, who are Reynaldo Melian Alvarez, trumpet; Dreiser Durruthy Bombale, bata drums and lead vocals; Rodney Yllarza Barreto, drums and vocals; Angel Gaston Joya Perellada, double bass and vocals; and Yaroldy Abreu Robles, percussion and vocals.

The song "Bebo" is a musical homage to Valdes' father, who died in March. (Valdes began recording in December, so his father was able to hear the album.) It is in no way melancholy, but rather smooth and melodic. It features Alvarez on the trumpet and Marsalis on the tenor sax. But as it's a deeply personal piece, the standout feature is Valdes himself, who said he physically channeled his father.

"This was an idea that came to me spur of the moment," he said. "I was playing a solo and then all of a sudden I started playing in my father's style with my left hand. So right then and there I divided my brain. With my left hand, I was playing in his style and with my right hand, I was playing in my style.

"And when my father heard it, he just loved it. He loved the idea of me splitting myself up into two and playing him and myself as one."

"Pilar" is also a reflection of his mother's style, with sequences from genres she loved; Miles Davis' "Blue and Green" and Bach's "Prelude in D Minor" are represented.

"It's melancholy, it's spiritual, like my mother — my mother was a very spiritual person," Valdes said.

The 12-minute track between familial tributes, "Afro-Comanche," takes a historical turn but continues in the theme of blurred borders. In the 19th century, a group of about 700 Comanche were taken prisoner by the Spanish Army in what is now Texas. They were eventually relocated to the eastern part of Cuba, where many intermarried with Cubans and gave birth to "Afro-Comanches." Their hyphenated name indicates the meeting of two worlds, a fusion that characterized their culture.

"(They) created a sort of Mardi Gras-like celebration in eastern Cuba similar to New Orleans where the Africans dress up as Native Americans and create music together with them, which must have been a tremendous musical expression," Valdes said. "And that's why I appear wearing a Native headdress on the cover."

The album's cover art — an image of Valdes in an enormous Native American headdress — shows him again testing the limits of borders, traditions and styles.

Other tribute tracks include "Caridad Amaro," a piece for Valdes' grandmother; "Tabu," a nod to Cuban musician and composer Margarita Lecuona; "Santa Cruz," a track that draws on flamenco music in dedication to Santi, a guitarist from the Canary Islands; and "Abdel," the eighth and final track, named for a Moroccan percussionist who taught Valdes.

Valdes said he will "for sure" play from "Border-Free" at the jazz festival, and also plans to preview a few songs he's currently working on for next year.

"When I create music like this, it's not this or that or the other," he said of his latest album. "The way I trained, I studied Cuban music, I studied Afro-Cuban music, I studied classics, I studied other genres — and since my childhood. So when I say 'It's not this that or the other,' it's that all of this comes together as a single coherent whole."

What: Chucho Valdes will perform with his quintet at the Stanford Jazz Festival.

Where: Bing Concert Hall, 327 Lasuen St., Stanford University

When: 8 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 10.

Cost: Tickets are $45-$70 general and $15 for students, with premium tickets priced at $100.

Info: Go to or call 650-725-ARTS.

Editorial Assistant Elena Kadvany can be emailed at


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