CD – Jazz Review: Bebo and Chucho Valdes

Bebo Valdés / Chucho Valdés

“Juntos Para Siempre” (Sony Music Latin- Calle 54 Records)

By Fernando Gonzalez

For years, when his name was mentioned at all, Ramon “Bebo” Valdés was merely a footnote in popular music history: the father of Cuban pianist, composer, and arranger Jesús “Chucho” Valdés, a solo artist and director of the Afro-Cuban jazz fusion group Irakere. But, as time revealed, Valdés Sr. was himself an exceptional artist with a remarkable story.Valdes CD

As the house pianist, bandleader and music consultant at Havana’s fabled Tropicana nightclub at an era many consider the Golden Age of Cuban music, Bebo Valdés wrote arrangements for such top Cuban singers and entertainers as Beny Moré, Pio Leyva, Rita Montaner and Rolando La Serie. He accompanied visiting stars like Nat “King” Cole (for whom he wrote the orchestrations for his Cole Español album); composed for films, and had his own commercial hits. In 1952, he led an all-star session for producer Norman Granz that captured — for the first time on record — a descarga, or Cuban jam session.

In 1959 Bebo Valdés formed the fabled Sabor de Cuba orchestra, featuring singer Rolando La Serie. But then came the Revolution, and Valdés found himself “chased” (as he once put it), from job to job. So with the tapes of two freshly recorded sessions of his band under his arm as his savings, he left for Mexico. He stayed there for 18 months, then moved to Spain, and worked in Europe until, while on a tour in Sweden, he fell in love with an 18-year old local beauty and decided to marry, settle down, and raise a family. He remained active, but in time, his family´s needs prevailed over the demands of a music career and he accepted jobs as a lounge pianist on cruise ships and, later, in Stockholm hotels. In 1990, he retired.

It was Cuban saxophonist/clarinetist Paquito D’Rivera – who remembers being a kid in short pants when he first met Bebo — who called Valdés in 1994, trying to entice him back to the piano and into the recording studio. The resulting Bebo Rides Again (Messidor, reissued by Pimienta, 2004) featured eight new original pieces written and arranged by Valdés, reportedly in a mere 36 hours. When Bebo Rides Again unexpectedly won a Grammy, it launched a new chapter in his career.  Since then, Bebo Valdés, now 90, has won another Grammy and five Latin Grammys.

Jesus Dionisio “Chucho” Valdés, 67, is Bebo´s son from his first family. Since exploding on to the jazz scene in the late 70s as the leader, pianist and main composer and arranger of Irakere, Chucho has developed a very active, and very successful, solo career. He is widely respected as one of the premier jazz pianists in world.

But Chucho lives in Havana, and Bebo has sworn to not return to Cuba as long as Fidel Castro´s regime remains in power. As a result, father and son did not see each other for many years. They finally met again backstage at Carnegie Hall, in New York City, in 1978. Chucho was appearing with Irakere and Bebo flew in from Stockholm for the occasion. But even after the senior Valdés became active again in music, and the opportunities for father and son to meet outside Cuba improved, bridging family history, years and distance, took some time.

Saga Valdés 02
Chucho, Bebo and Chucho's daughter, Leyanis, at the Son Latinos Canarias Festival in Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain, 2003

Eventually, they did begin to play together — a joint performance on D´Rivera´s Cuba Jazz 90 Miles from Cuba, in 1995; a tantalizing duet in the Latin jazz film Calle 54 (2000) by Spanish Oscar winning filmmaker Fernando Trueba, and live appearances such as the one at the Son Latinos Canarias Festival in Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain, in 2003. Whatever distance and differences may have existed, Bebo and Chucho have grown close in recent years. Theirs has become, as producer Nat Chediak puts it, “a love story.”

Bebo & Chucho: Juntos Para Siempre, their first full recording together, sounds like a natural culmination of their renewed relationship.

As might be expected, given the players and the circumstances, it is a very rich, highly charged session. This is not your off-the-shelf father-and-son get together. Personal history aside, these are both extraordinary artists who are successful in their own right. And while there might have been a lot of love in the air in that studio – and some of it can be heard explicitly in Chucho’s passionate “Preludio para Bebo,” and Bebo’s “A Chucho,” a playful tribute with a gentle danzón sway — these are also two proud musicians who are not about to be topped by anyone, much less while sitting at the piano playing this repertoire.

The set also includes Cuban classics (such as Osvaldo Farre’s “Tres Palabras,” and Miguel Matamoros’ “Son de La Loma,” and “Lágrimas Negras”); jazz standards (“Tea for Two,” “Perdido”); “Rareza del Siglo” (Bebo’s first big hit in the 1940s); and a joint improvisation or “descarga.”

The playing throughout is consistently virtuosic, exuberant, and — reflecting their personalities — often mischievous. (“Tea for Two” gets a playful rope-skipping rhythmic treatment that belies the cleverness of the arrangement) Bebo and Chucho sound solidly supportive of each other in every way, changing roles generously, smoothly and effectively, now playing the lead, improvising long, curling single-note runs, now accompanying discreetly, making room for the other one’s flights of fancy. Listen for example their reading of “Son de la Loma” or the seamless back and forth in “La Gloria ..” and “Lágrimas Negras.”

Also, these are not only top notch players (and Bebo, especially, is a living repository of Cuban popular music tradition), but also astute arrangers, composers and bandleaders. So while their approach to the instrument is highly pianistic – and then lushly, romantically so – in their playing in Juntos Para Siempre they often suggest a small orchestra. Listen to Chucho´s accompaniment behind Bebo’s melody in Jose Antonio Méndez’s “La Gloria Eres Tú,” or the arrangement of Juan Tizol’s “Perdido,” detailed with clever bass lines, counterlines and punchy voicings just waiting for a horn section to show up.

Part family portrait, part piano extravaganza, part music history lesson, Juntos Para Siempre is, most of all, a damn fine good time.

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