[JPL] From Old Havana, With a Grammy- Winning Detour

r durfee rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com
Mon Oct 16 18:28:03 EDT 2006

October 16, 2006
Music Review | Bebo Valdés
>From Old Havana, With a Grammy- Winning Detour 
The refinement of old Havana met the brashness of New
York City when the 88-year-old Cuban pianist Bebo
Valdés joined the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra in
Friday’s Jazz at Lincoln Center concert at the Rose

Mr. Valdés, who has lived in Stockholm since 1963 and
emerged from three decades of obscurity in 1994, has
played New York in various settings, notably in a duo
with the flamenco singer Diego El Cigala. But this
concert was primarily a showcase for Mr. Valdés as
composer and big-band arranger, and featured the
United States premiere of his “Suite Cubana,” which he
recorded for his Grammy Award-winning 2005 album,
“Bebo de Cuba” (Calle 54).

Back in the 1950’s, Mr. Valdés was the house pianist
at the Tropicana nightclub in Havana and, until he
emigrated, he was the leader of his own big band,
Orquesta Sabor de Cuba. He knows big-band composition
from the inside. “Suite Cubana,” written in the
1990’s, blends nostalgia and musicianly invention. The
foundation is classic Cuban rhythms, ever danceable;
atop them, Mr. Valdés sends alluring melodies through
contrapuntal transformations to brassy peaks. 

The concert began on a smaller scale, with Mr. Valdés
playing solo and then leading an ensemble that grew to
11 pieces in descargas, or Latin jam sessions, that
included tunes from “Bebo de Cuba.”

On piano, Mr. Valdés revealed his conservatory
training and an epigrammatic wit. There’s Chopin and
Mozart in his playing, as well as Cuban son and danza.
His touch is precise and dainty, and his voicings are
transparent; he delineates the rhythm of a mambo or a
guajira with a few syncopated chords, neatly sets out
a theme, then dances above it with lines in parallel
octaves or twinkly filigree. Working with an ensemble,
he animates the group like a puppeteer pulling
marionette strings up above, barely visible but
essential. His descarga group at Rose Hall featured
Michael Philip Mossman on trumpet, who summoned the
wry, sweet-and-sour tone of vintage Cuban musicians.

It was a initial letdown when, with the full
Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra mustered for “Suite Cubana,”
Mr. Valdés sat in a conductor’s chair with the score
while the orchestra’s leader, Arturo O’Farrill, took
over on piano. (Mr. Valdés returned to the piano for
the finale, “Ecuación.”) But the suite became a
repertory piece, brilliantly played, seguing from
urbane melodies to dance vamps to elaborate
counterpoint. “Devoción” was a series of fantasias
rising out of the six-beat rhythms of the Afro-Cuban
spirit ceremony called bembé, from an Ellingtonian
ballad to an elaborate fugue. 

Mr. O’Farrill is a magnificent player himself, but
from a different pianistic school: sharper, splashier,
more driving, even when he paid tribute to Mr.
Valdés’s light-fingered approach. And while the
soloists — including Mr. Mossman and Raúl Agraz on
trumpets, Mario Rivera on tenor saxophone, Luis
Bonilla on trombone and Bobby Porcelli on alto
saxophone — had recorded “Suite Cubana” with Mr.
Valdés in 2002, now the tone was different: trombones
charged ahead; high-note trumpets screamed. “Suite
Cubana” became not only an expatriate’s fond
remembrances, but also a determined, joyful way to
keep them alive. 


Roy Durfee
P.O. Box 40219
Albuquerque, New Mexico 87196-0219
rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com

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