Human history – as Gilgamesh, Homeric epics, Biblical narratives and other sagas – will tell us, is a series of events where characters, as often as not, get ahead of themselves, believe that what they see ahead of themselves is real and not the mirage that it turns out to be. After a series of hairpin bends, the proverbial U-turn takes place. Reconciliation ensues and amid some – often miraculous – mid-course correction, “normal service resumes”. This could easily be the story, as some would say the return of the great Bebo Valdés, one of the most influential musicians in Afro-Caribbean music.
After Bebo Valdés began performing professionally sometime in the 1940s, he replaced René Hernández in one of the leading dance bands in Havana. He never looked back, gaining fame [in 1946] as the composer of the iconic mambo “Rareza del siglo”. Quite thereafter, he became pianist and arranger for Rita Montaner, at the famous Tropicana in Havana, a remarkable run that lasted nine years during which he and his band also came to perform with singers Benny Moré and Pío Leyva. In between, Bebo Valdés made recordings with Nat King Cole, melded Jazz into his unique brand of Afro-Caribbean music and even reinvented mambo in the form of batanga, premiered at the Tropicana in 1952. Then, in 1960, while on tour in Europe he fell in love again, “It was like being hit by lightning,” he said. “If you meet a woman and you want to change your life you have to choose between love and art.” That marked 36 years of anonymity, virtually all of it spent in domestic life in Sweden.
Meanwhile, his eldest son, Chucho Valdés, who’d cut his proverbial teeth in his father’s band as a young man, was gaining fame in Cuba as an artist of the first order. In the years since his father left Cuba, Chucho has already recorded an album as leader in 1964, and he – by 1965 – became a fulltime bandleader. In the ensuing years he recorded with Alberto Giral on trombone, Julio Vento on flute, Carlos Emilio Morales on guitar, Kike Hernández on double bass, and formed small ensembles which included legendary Cuban musicians, Paquito D’Rivera, Cachaíto or Carlos Del Puerto, Enrique Plá or Guillermo Barreto. Later he became a charter member of the famous Cuban big band, Orquesta Cubana de Música Moderna. In 1973 he founded the group Irakere, a legendary ensemble, one of Cuba’s best-known Afro-Cuban jazz bands and certainly one of the greatest Latin-Jazz bands in the world.
After a long estrangement, and two independent sojourns that took them to virtually opposite ends of the world, Bebo Valdés and his son Chucho reconciled and actually met a couple of times. But it was another Cuban, Paquito D’Rivera who coaxed Bebo Valdés out of “retirement” and became instrumental in the legendary pianist and composer’s first recording in 36 years. Bebo Rides Again was recorded with members of Mr D’Rivera’s celebrated band in 1994; the film Calle 54 by Fernando Trueba, followed in the year 2000, with another brilliant recording, El Arte del Sabor in 2001, which reunited Bebo Valdés with other great Cuban musicians – Carlos “Patato” Valdés and Israel López “Cachao” forming the Bebo Valdés Trio, featuring Paquito D’Rivera. Bebo Valdés then went on to record Lágrimas Negras in 2003 with the Flamenco cantaor, Diego El Cigala, followed by the monumental double album Bebo de Cuba in 2006. Each of the recordings were Grammy Awards winners.
One of Bebo Valdés’ last musical productions was fittingly recorded with his son and – even more fittingly [and, naturally, rather sentimentally entitled]: Juntos para siempre [Together Forever, 2008]. This recording is also one of the most celebrated recordings by Bebo Valdés and has won a Grammy Award for Best Latin Jazz Album at the 52nd Grammy Awards in 2010. This recording also won the Latin Grammy Award on the same field. Awards aside, this recording is a truly beautiful one, featuring two magnificent pianists from two different eras of music united not just as being father and son, but by a mutual respect for each other, and whose individual voices seem to complement each other to such an extent that they seem to be narrating a common musical history, the chapters of which are told – on this occasion, one harmonic variation at a time, the voices of Bebo Valdés and Chucho Valdés seamlessly entwined in the common narrative of a continuum with vivid musical imagery born of the immense courage and the pianistic finesse of each pianist imbuing the repertoire with a myriad sensitivities.
The grasp of the Afro-Caribbean and Afro-American Jazz prosodies allows each musician the melodies that made the musical histories of both styles sing with uncommon songfulness. Intellectually and emotionally father and son make each piece theirs in very special way, communicating as if in secret, from brain to brain, mind to mind as well as from heart to heart. You hear this in Bebo Valdés’ iconic piece “Rareza del siglo” as well as in the staple of pianists down history – “Tea for Two” and Juan Tizol’s chart that became famous with Duke Ellington’s orchestra – “Perdido”. The latter pieces feature artistically brilliant soli by both pianists with opening riffs effortlessly sweeping up and down the keyboard with every harmony intact. Each of the songs is reignited when the pianists play off each other, developing ideas into a masterful contiguous whole.
Despite bringing so much virtuosic piano firepower to a single date, this is no macho wham-bang fest. Rather this is gentle storytelling – the narratives being told as if Bebo Valdés and Chucho let each piece breathe, controlling the ebb and flow of each piece with enormous skill. Naturally need pianists of enormously flexible technique and a large portfolio of nuance to bring all of this off [check out both Chucho Valdés’ towering performance on “Preludio para Bebo” and Bebo Valdés returning the favour on “A Chucho”. Each offers a different tonal spectrum and rhythmic attack; each sparkles with a life of its own]. Together the performances of both Bebo Valdés and Chucho Valdés are agile, tonally rich, spiky and brilliant. This is one of the most characterful and musically engaging piano recordings – solo or [especially] duo. This, in turn, is born of a connection that can only come from musicians whose hearts beat as one, together also taking our collective breaths away on an album flowing with the glorious music of Cuba that is at once traditional and modern, in a river of musical history.
Track list – 1: Preludio para Bebo; 2: Descarga Valdés; 3: Tres palabras; 4: Rareza del siglo; 5: Tea for Two; 6: Son de la loma; 7: la gloria eres tu; 8: A Chucho; 9: Sabor a mí; 10: Perdido; 11: Lágrimas negras; 12: La conga del dentista
Personnel – Bebo Valdés: piano; Chucho Valdés: piano
Released – 2009
Label – Calle 54 / Sony Music Latin
Runtime – 54:12