At this point, American labels have pushed Cuban music so hard that even NPR has dialed down its coverage of Havana-bred masters. That's predictable, of course. But here's hoping that the diminishment of the Cuban craze doesn't take the spotlight off less commercial stars like pianist Jesus "Chuchito" Valdés.
The proud product of one of the island's great musical families, the classically trained Valdés has omnivorous tastes and a seemingly limitless supply of energy. Much like his famous piano-playing father, Chucho, Chuchito Valdés is adept at blending various jazz styles with danzón, rumba, cha-cha-cha, son montuno and other popular Cuban dance forms. Bop genius Bud Powell (one of his father's favorites) is an obvious touchstone, but so are bold, muscular players like McCoy Tyner and block-chord specialist Junior Mance.
An astounding video clip from the 2007 San Jose Jazz Festival finds the ever-smiling Valdés playing around with dissonance and syncopated rhythms as he slams his digits into the keyboard of a shiny black Steinway with such abandon that it threatens to vibrate it right off the stage. It's a thrilling couple of minutes, and it gives a more complete picture of Valdés' improvising than his studio recordings present.
On disc, his technical skill and astounding grasp of harmony are front and center. But on that sunny day in San Diego he was a keyboard-smashing titan, the kind of larger-than-life player who approaches ecstasy with a few well-chosen chords. In other words, with Chuchito Valdés, seeing is believing.
Playful Madison-based jazz singer Alison Margaret opens the free outdoor show, part of the Jazz at Five summer series, with her quartet.