There is no “one” single iconic recording by the great Bebo Valdés. The pianist was an epitomé of good taste, which is not the reason for picking this album as this week’s essential recordings. Perhaps some might suggest that the recording that heralded his comeback after literally 30 years in the cold, Bebo Rides Again might have been more appropriate. After all Old Man Bebo wrote a reported eight songs and arranged a total of eleven songs in the 36 hours before the date that was put together by Paquito D’Rivera. Perhaps that ought to have been featured. But there is something about El Arte Del Sabor (not just its title) that has just a tad more mystery and magic.
Look who’s on the disc, for instance, accompanying The Great One; Israel “Cachao” López on bass, Carlos “Patato” Valdés on congas and percussion and even Paquito D’Rivera on alto saxophone and clarinet on three tracks. The intimacy of the recording is only rivaled by another iconic date on which Bebo Valdés appeared – a reunion with his eminent son, Jesús “Chucho” Valdés for Fernando Trueba’s film and recording Calle 54, featured below in the video clip.
Bebo Valdés is at the top of his game here. His uncompromising directness is one of the many strengths of this spotless performance of these wondrous pieces. Of course, Bebo Valdés was never capable of playing a wrong note in his life. In something of a Confucius-like manner he seemed to have been born a wise old man. Those who heard him live will testify to that and all of the records he made seem to have that fresh, invented-just-this-minute feel to them. And so also what emerges here in Bebo Valdés’ playing of all the seventeen pieces is the wonderful singing quality of his legato, combined with a most natural-sounding control of rubato, often marked but never exaggerated.
These are qualities to be cherished in all of Bebo Valdés’ pieces – literally everything he plays here. Look down the track list below and you can pick any tune to discover its uncompromising beauty. That is if you have the record (and if you have not then any price is worth paying for it). The great pianist brings finely controlled tonal contrasts to the pieces – “Ogguere” is a great example because it also features Cachao playing con arco and Paquito D’Rivera on clarinet. The symphony (there is no better way to describe it) is complete with “Patato” and his gliding hands across the skins of the congas. Even the word “masterpiece” seems inadequate. Here we also see (and hear) Bebo Valdés’ subtlest treatment of dynamics imaginable, never rising above pianissimo.
The musical accompaniment is unsurpassed and while this might seem like a critique of superlatives, it is the only appropriate measure here. Listen to the nicely graded and transparent textures throughout the recording. It is the closest thing to diaphanous gossamer that any music can be appropriated to. Everything is on point, including the underlying orchestral colouring. It is simply hard to imagine anything played more lovingly or more stylishly and with the utmost candour – all qualities that are missing in much of music today, which is why I would hold fast onto anything by Old Man Bebo.
Track List – Lamento Cubano, Son de la Loma, El Marañon, Bolero Potpourri, Priquitin Pin Pon, Negro de Sociedad, Buche & Pluma – Na Ma, El Reloj de Pastora, Conga Potpourri, Ogguere, Pare Cochero, Cumbanchero, Si llego a baserte, Guracha Potpourri, Romance en La Habana, Route 66, Adios Panama – Para Vigo Me Voy.
Personnel – Bebo Valdés, piano, Israel “Cachao” López, bass, Carlos “Patato” Valdés, percussion, Paquito D’Rivera, alto sax, clarinet (tracks 5, 10, 15)
Released – 2004
Label – Blue Note Records
Runtime – 1:03:41
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