Chucho Valdes at the NJPAC: Concert Review

On Sunday, January 21st 2012, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) presented an afternoon of piano jazz, with Chucho Valdes and the Afro Cuban Messengers and the Hiromi Trio Project. The event took place at Prudential Hall, which is hailed by the New York Times as “one of the world’s greatest concert halls.”

The Hiromi Trio Project

The show opened with pianist, composer, and bandleader, Hiromi Uehara — a striking and youthful prodigy who epitomizes a new generation of artists whose music transcends conventional boundaries. Visually, Hiromi makes a striking first impression. She is 23, looks younger than her years, and projects an informal, playful demeanor that flies in the face of convention. Aurally, you quickly realize that you are in the presence of a force of nature.

Most, if not all of the music performed was from Hiromi’s most recent CD, titled, “Voice.” The trio kicked off the set with the title track, which begins with a somber piano solo that expands into an energetic groove, pushed forward by Jackson and Phillips, followed by “Now or Never,” whose chord progressions brought to mind Thelonious Monk’s “In Walked Bud.” The tune featured a spirited give and take between Jackson and Phillips. Towards the middle of the set the momentum built to such a degree that it became impossible to concentrate on anything but the music and the interaction between the band members. Onstage, the trio is a tight unit but it’s Hiromi who steals the show. She is fond of rhythmic and melodic complexity, extended improvisation, playing the piano at breakneck speed and switching gears on a dime, yet she never loses sight of the big picture. Towards the end of the set the trio performed a bluesy rendition of “Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 9,” which garnered a rousing standing ovation and a chorus of “Bravos!” As the set came to a close and the house lights went up for intermission, the burning question on everyone’s mind was, “Who is that girl?”

Hiromi was born and raised in Japan. She took up the piano at the age of 6, where she learned early on to tap into the intuitive as well as the technical aspects of the music. At 14, she performed with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and at 17, through a chance meeting, shared the stage with Chick Corea. Prior to enrolling at the Berklee College of Music in Boston in 1999, Hiromi made her living composing jingles for Nissan and a number of other high profile Japanese companies. While at Berklee, pianist Ahmad Jamal took a special interest in her and called her “nothing short of amazing.” In 2003 she stunned the jazz community with her debut on Telarc Records titled, “Mind.” To date, she has released 8 recordings as a leader, the most recent being “Voice,” where she returns to the trio format with two formidable musicians, bassist Anthony Jackson and drummer Simon Phillips.

Hiromi’s music transcends genres. “It has some elements of classical music, some rock, it has some jazz,” says Hiromi, “but I don’t want to give it a name.”

Chucho Valdés and The Afro Cuban Messengers

Looking tall, lean and totally in command, Jesus “Chucho” Valdes Rodriguez needs no introduction. The pianist, composer, arranger, bandleader and educator is the recipient of 5 Grammy Awards in the Latin Jazz category, 3 Latin Grammys and numerous doctorates and awards. He formed the Afro Cuban Messengers, a 7 piece band named after Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. The set began with a tribute to one of Chucho’s favorite composers, Duke Ellington. The medley included “Satin Doll,” “In a Sentimental Mood” and “Caravan” against the background of Cuban groove. The band also performed a tribute to the Austrian American keyboardist, composer and co-founder of Weather Report, Joe Zawinul. “Zawinul’s Mambo” turned the tune “Birdland” on its ear without compromising its center of gravity.  The tune, “To Begin to Be Good” cleverly combines mambo with elements of two show tunes: “Begin the Beguine” and “Lady Be Good”. Anyone who is familiar with Chucho’s music knows that he never strays far from his African roots. In keeping with that vocalist Mayra Caridad Valdes (Chucho’s sister) praised “Obatala,” a Yoruban deity of purity. Likewise, the Afro Cuban Messengers performed a scorching rendition of “Yansa,” another name for Oya, the Yoruba Goddess of the wind. The tune was a showcase for the percussionists, Dreiser Duruthy Bambole (bata drums), Yarold Abreu Robles (congas) and drummer Juan Carlos Rojas Castro, whose intense rhythmic exchange garnered cheers from the crowd. The set closed with “Chucho’s Steps,” whose chord progressions and driving montuno (vamp) pay tribute to John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.” The band returned to the stage for an encore and performed the Cuban classic, “The Peanut Vendor” as Chucho gave the audience a lesson in the fundamentals of clave (a structural element in Cuban music).

It’s worth noting that the Afro Cuban Messengers current tour included a triumphant return to Carnegie Hall, where Chucho last performed with Irakere in 1978. In a long and illustrious career that spans over 50 years, Chucho Valdes is still going strong. As for Hiromi, it was her night to shine, and shine she did!

Tomás Peña
Tomás Peña
A graduate of Empire State College with a dual major in journalism and Latin American studies, Tomas Peña has spent years applying his knowledge and writing skills to the promotion of great musicians. A specialist in the crossroads between jazz and Latin music, Peña has written extensively on the subject.

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