Any debate whether the piano is a string or a percussion instrument came to an end Sunday night, as storied Cuban pianist Chucho Valdes led his Afro-Cuban Messengers in two hours of thunderous latin jazz at the .
Playing for a crowd of nearly 400 at the venue’s intimate recital hall, Valdez, 71, who has won five Grammys over the years, lifted the audience with his high-powered, lush, bluesy and often frenetic style of piano playing backed by layers of Afro-Cuban rhythm.
The 8-piece band featured Valdes on piano, Lazaro Rivero Alarcon on bass, Juan Carlos Rojas Castro on drums, Yaroldy Abreu Robles on percussion, Drieser Durruty Bambole on bata drum, Carlos Manuel Miyares Hernandez on tenor saxophone, Reinaldo Melian Alverez on trumpet and Chucho’s sister Mayra Caridad Valdes as vocalist, each of them hailing from Cuba.
The concert kicked off with a medley of Duke Ellington tunes including Satin Doll, In a Sentimental Mood and C Jam Blues, weaving each melody together in a range of styles from up tempo latin to down home blues.
Though it wasn’t until the second piece, a Valdez tune named Taboo, that the three percussionists showed off their energy, alternating between mechanical syncopation and poignant bursts of unity. It was a theme that would carry through the rest of the show.
The legendary Valdes shined for the entire show, showing how versatile he was in pieces such as his interpretation of the jazz classic Stella By Starlight and a later ballad he performed in honor of his mother. The pianist’s thick harmonies and soulful blues passages often blended with layers of sound from whirling arpeggios and cadenzas. In other pieces, the pianist led his ensemble with punctuated solos full of rhythm and intensity.
Valdez’s sister joined to group for two songs, belting out the type of sorrowful melodies that the listener didn’t need to speak Spanish to understand.
But it was the pianist’s tribute to great Weather Report keyboardist Joe Zawinul that stole the show. For listeners who might be jazz musicians themselves, just hearing a hint of the iconic tune Birdland brings up memories of out-of-tune and rigid high school jazz ensemble rehearsals, but the Afro-Cuban Messengers took the tune to new heights. Throughout the entire piece percussionist Yaroldy Abreu Robles clacked an offbeat rhythm striking drumsticks against the wooden body of the conga, sounding like a musical typewriter an ever-present rhythm that gave rise to the piece and culminating in a drum and percussion battle that thrilled the crowd.
The one-set show was just the latest in a series of appearances for Valdes in his “Chucho’s Steps” tour following the release of his latest album. He’s played venues in Philadelphia and New Jersey, as well as New York’s famed Carnegie Hall in the past weeks.
For another take on the performance, see this write-up in the Stony Brook Press.
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