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[whitespace] Stanford Jazz Festival Key Figure: Pianist Chucho Valdés embodies the rhythmic pleasures of Afro-Cuban music.

Stanford Jazz Festival kicks off in a Latin groove with Chucho Valdés

By Nicky Baxter

FANCIERS OF Latin jazz perk up at the mention of Irakere, the group that brought jazz and traditional African/Cuban musics together like no other ensemble before its inception in the early 1970s--or since. The band's pianist founder/musical director and primary composer, Jesus "Chucho" Valdés--who appears June 26 as part of a three-day Afro-Cuban Jazz Symposium at Stanford--is one of the most significant figures in contemporary Cuban music.

Born in a village south of Havana, Valdés began playing piano at the age of 3. His father, Bebo Valdés, was a prominent musician in his own right. "My father," says the 57-year-old Valdés, "taught me Afro-Cuban music and jazz." Chucho went on to study with renowned singer and bandleader Benny More and composer/pianist Ernesto Lecuona, among others.

Jazz, of course, has long been familiar to Cubans, and Valdés became an avid fan at a young age. "When I was a child," he says in halting English, "my father worked at a most famous club, Tropicana. I saw many jazz musicians like Nat 'King' Cole, Dizzy [Gillespie] and Sarah Vaughan. My influence comes from that and the radio."

When Valdés put together Irakere in 1973, his approach to the piano was already stunningly complete. Fusing the awesome technique of Art Tatum, the advanced harmonies of McCoy Tyner and the lyrical elegance of Lecuona--underscored by the rhythms of the Yoruba people of Africa--his performance approach is all-encompassing.

To listen to Chucho Valdés Live (UNI/RMM Records), which was released earlier this year, is to witness genius in full flower. The album commences with a dazzling piano solo introduction to "Tumbao," one of his most popular pieces. Fleet-fingered Tatum-like runs, dissonant clusters of notes that wouldn't be out of place in a Randy Weston solo and even strands of Western classical music are seamlessly conjoined.

Everything is held together by the pianist's impeccable rhythmic thrust. By the time Valdés' accompaniment--a brass section coupled with a flotilla of percussionists--kicks in, "Tumbao" is a sizzling salsa stew. "Blues a Benny More" (last name pronounced "Mor-Rey"), dedicated to his former instructor, is another cooker, this time done up in a big-band swing format. The number features Roberto Carcasses, a full-throated singer who also penned the tune. Various soloists are showcased; each displays virtuosity seldom heard these days. Just when one expects closure, the band ratchets up the temperature, ignited by Valdes' muscular, herky-jerky piano.

The ensuing tune, also written by Carcasses, finds Valdés and company exploring Puerto Rican sonic territory with kinetic fury. That composition, "Blues a Puerto Rico," again showcases the percussion section's snapping polyrhythms; timbales player Nicky Marrero's performance is especially impressive.

Bay Area fans of Cuban music are fortunate to have Valdés as a part of Stanford's 26th annual Jazz Workshop and Festival; due to restrictions on Cuban musicians performing in this country, Valdés has played in the U.S. only infrequently. Following Valdés (who performs today), the festival's three-day "Afro-Cuban Jazz Symposium" continues with concerts and workshops by pianist/bandleader Rebeca Mauleón and Round Trip, and Cuban-born pianist/composer Omar Sosa (Saturday). On Sunday, the symposium concludes with percussionist John Santos and Machete.

Chucho Valdés performs Friday (June 26) at 8pm at Dinkelspiel Auditorium, Stanford. Tickets are $20/$18. Rebeca Mauleón and Round Trip and Omar Sosa perform Saturday (June 27) at 8pm at Dinkelspiel. Tickets are $20/$18. John Santos and Machete perform Sunday (June 28) at 7:30pm at Campbell Recital Hall. Tickets are $18/$16. For information about concerts and workshops, call 650/327-0778.

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From the June 25-July 1, 1998 issue of Metro.

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