Pianist Chucho Valdés, 59, has earned international renown and a devoted audience as an imaginative composer, virtuosic improviser, commanding bandleader and invaluable collaborator (most recently with trumpeter Roy Hargrove's Cuban-American big band Crisol). Now with the release of Fantasia Cubana: Variations on Classical Themes, his sixth CD on Blue Note Records, Valdés embraces works by Chopin, Debussy, Ravel and his inspirational mentor Ernesto Lecuona, in a solo setting, demonstrating through sensitive interpretations and original compositions a nuanced lyricism that illuminates acknowledged classics.
A physically powerful keyboardist who as a child was introduced by his father Bebo Valdés, musical director of Havana's famed Tropicana club orchestra, to such American stars as Nat King" Cole and Sarah Vaughan, Chucho has demonstrated enormous range since his first recordings at age 18. Over his four-decade career he has established the groundbreaking jazz-rock-concerto-dance ensemble Irakere, won a Grammy for his recording Live at the Village Vanguard and garnered further Grammy nominations for albums exploring Afro-Cuban rhythmic and religious heritages. Fantasia Cubana, produced by the late classical pianist Arthur Rubinstein's producer Max Wilcox and dedicated by Valdés to Leo Brower, the Cuban classical guitarist with whom he has frequently worked, unfolds what the pianist calls a Chucho-ization of classic piecesmy speculations on how their composers might enjoy them, or themselves change them, to reflect the impact of the 20th century."
This is the realization of a dream," Chucho continues, speaking through musicologist René Lopez, his manager. It allows me to honor also the enormous importance of Zenaida Romeu, who instilled in me a love for classical music and really taught me how to play. I thought I knew how, until my father arranged for my private lessons with her when I was in my teens," he laughs. Then I realized I knew nothing."
Romeu, descended from another of Cuba's revered musical families, directed Valdés in the development of what is today acclaimed as his prodigious technique, but Chucho began playing piano at age three, encouraged and instructed by his father. He pursued the broad and expert musical education available from Cuban music schools while thriving in a home that was frequented by Havana's musical elite, including pianist-composer Ernesto Lecuona, bandleader Benny Moré and Chico O'Farrill, who came for dinner and social calls. From early on, Chucho seemed destined to follow Bebo's footsteps: at age 16 he organized Chucho Valdés y su Combo and in 1959 recorded two 45 rpm tracks for RCA Victor. Chucho took as his idols North American jazz pianists including Art Tatum, Bud Powell, Oscar Peterson, Thelonious Monk and McCoy Tyner.
Valdés joined the Elio Revé Orchestra in 1965, and in '67 co-founded Orquesta de Música Moderna with up-and-coming compatriots including guitarist Carlos Emilio Morales, reedsman Paquito D¹Rivera, trumpeter Arturo Sandoval and singer-percussionist Oscar Valdés. In 1973 eight members of that orchestra went on to form Irakere, which in 1978 became the first Castro-era Cuban ensemble to contract with a U.S.-based record label. Irakere's debut on Columbia was a Grammy winner, leading to the critically acclaimed Misa Negra (Black Mass), titled after Chucho's three-movement, 17-minute composition.
Chucho was prepared to attempt such ambitious works in part due to his youthful contacts with and admiration for Ernesto Lecuona, the concert pianist, founder of the Havana Symphony, and Academy Award-nominated film composer who is generally recognized as the most important Cuban musician of the first half of the 20th century.
Valdés pays homage to Lecuona on Fantasia Cubana with three completely different takes of the Maestro's La Comparsa," and salutes a triumvirate of his favorite Romantic composers with Chopin's Prelude in E-minor" and Waltz in A-minor," Debussy's Reverie & Arabesque," and Ravel's Pavane For A Dead Princess." He sustains the reflective mood through his own gentle compositions Sunrise," Fantasia Cubana," Tumbao," La Campesina," and even his more percussive Wakamba" and Impromptu."
Chucho Valdés currently tours the world with a quintet of musicians from Havana (including his sister Mayra Caridad Valdés), focusing on new repertoire as well as works documented on Live At The Village Vanguard (2000) and previous releases Briyumba Palo Congo (1999), and Bele Bele en La Habana (1998). He is also busy year-round as the president (since 1992) of the Havana Jazz Festival. Chucho is tentatively scheduled to perform works from Fantasia Cubana at special events accompanying the CD's release, including a weeklong retrospective of his career-to-date at the Montreal International Jazz Festival 2002.