Artist Profile: Chucho Valdés

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Cuban pianist, composer, arranger Chucho Valdés

Cuban pianist, composer, and arranger Chucho Valdés is the most influential figure in modern Afro-Cuban jazz. In a career spanning more than 60 years, both as a solo artist and bandleader, Mr. Valdés has distilled elements of the Afro-Cuban music tradition, jazz, classical music, rock, and more, into a deeply personal style. Winner of six GRAMMY® and four Latin GRAMMY® Awards, Mr. Valdés, received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Latin Academy of Recording Arts & Science last year and was also inducted in the Latin Songwriters Hall of Fame.

His most recent project, Jazz Batá 2, won a Latin Grammy as Best Latin Jazz album and was selected as one of Billboard magazine’s list of The 50 Best Latin Albums of the Decade. Jazz Batá 2 revisits a revolutionary idea Mr. Valdés first recorded in 1972: a piano jazz trio featuring batá drums, the sacred, hourglass-shaped drums used in the ritual music of the Yoruba religion in Cuba, in place of the conventional trap set.

Born in a family of musicians in Quivicán, Havana province, Cuba, on October 9, 1941, Dionisio Jesús “Chucho” Valdés Rodríguez, has distilled elements of the Afro-Cuban music tradition, jazz, classical music, and rock into an organic, deeply personal style.

His first teacher was his father, the pianist, composer, and bandleader Ramón “Bebo” Valdés. By the age of three, Mr. Valdés was already playing the melodies he heard on the radio at the piano, using both hands and in any key. He began taking lessons on piano, theory and solfege at the age of five and continued his formal musical education at the Conservatorio Municipal de Música de la Habana, from which he graduated at 14. A year later, Mr. Valdés formed his first jazz trio. In 1959, he debuted professionally with the band Sabor de Cuba. The ensemble, directed by his father, is widely considered one of the great orchestras in modern Cuban music.

Fittingly, Mr. Valdés made his early mark as the founder, pianist and main composer and arranger of another landmark ensemble: the small big band Irakere (1973-2005). With its audacious mix of Afro-Cuban ritual music, Cuban dance music, jazz, classical music, and rock, Irakere marked a before and after in Latin jazz. Irakere’s self-titled debut recording in the United States won a Grammy as Best Latin Recording in 1979.

While he remained with Irakere until 2005, Mr. Valdés launched a parallel career in 1998 both as a solo performer and a small-group leader. It marked the beginning of an enormously fruitful period highlighted by albums such as Solo Piano (Blue Note, 1991), Solo: Live in New York (Blue Note, 2001) and New Conceptions (Blue Note, 2003), as well as quartet recordings such as Belé Belé en La Habana (Blue Note, 1998), Briyumba Palo Congo (Blue Note, 1999) and Live at the Village Vanguard (Blue Note, 2000), which won a Grammy for Best Latin Jazz Album.

After leaving Irakere, Mr. Valdés won Grammys for Juntos Para Siempre (Calle 54, 2007), the duet recording with his father, Bebo; and, Chucho’s Steps (Comanche, 2010), which introduced his new group, the Afro-Cuban Messengers.

But that didn´t mean to forget past achievements. In 2015, Mr. Valdés celebrated the 40th anniversary of the birth of Irakere, his iconic band, with a world tour. A resulting recording, Tribute to Irakere: Live at Marciac (Jazz Village / Comanche Music), won a Grammy for Best Latin Jazz Album in 2016.

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