Afro-Cuban music enjoys an evolutionary advantage over the rest of the jazz world. Like other points on the spectrum, it changes and grows over time, gaining in harmonic and formal complexity as it expands to incorporate a wide range of contemporary American jazz and popular music influences. Periodically, it weathers sea changes and submits to a back-to-basics overhaul. No matter how cerebral it gets, however, Afro-Cuban music never seems to break its ties to the body.
“Dance is definitely an element of the music, and it’s indispensable,” said pianist Chucho Valdés, whose Afro-Cuban Messengers will perform two cabaret-style evening shows at the Jorgensen Center this weekend. Valdés, who has been at the forefront of modern Afro-Cuban jazz for much of the last several decades, has amassed a sizable back catalog, one that tells the history of jazz and Afro-Cuban music from ragtime to bop to free jazz, transcending the geographical boundaries between Cuba and the American South, between Havana and New Orleans, even across the Atlantic to West Africa. Remarkably, most of it makes you want to boogie down.
Speaking by phone (with the assistance of a translator) from his home in Cuba, Valdés said when he was a music student in Havana in the early 1960s, one of his dreams was to mix rhythms from styles around the world, to combine them and to create one “unique rhythm.” “I’m at the moment when I’m getting closer to achieving that,” he said.
As a teenager, Valdés worked with his father, Bebo Valdés, a bandleader who defected to Sweden in 1963. By day, he studied music at the Havana Municipal Conservatory, and at night, when Bebo jammed at the famed Tropicana nightclub, Chucho was exposed both to a variety of Cuban popular and folk musics as well as to New Orleans jazz. At the end of the 1960s, Chucho formed the Orquesta Cubana de Música Moderna with trumpeter Arturo Sandoval and multi-instrumentalist Paquito D’Rivera; one recording, Misa Negra (1969), fuses jazz with melodic material long associated with Afro-Cuban religions: Santería, Palo Monte and Abakuá.
In the early 1970s, several members of the Orquesta Cubana founded Irakere, a group that broke new ground, mingling folkloric elements with rock, funk and jazz. Under Valdés’ watch as musical director in the 1980s and ’90s, Irakere became an Afro-Cuban academy of sorts for up-and-coming hotshots. He departed in 1998, and history repeated itself: his son Luis took over the group after Chucho’s final performance.
Since that time, Valdés has released a number of notable recordings; he won Grammys in 2009 and 2010 for Juntos para Siempre, a collaboration with his father. Chucho’s Steps, Valdés’ latest recording, is a characteristically eclectic large-ensemble recording that nods to his influences: the funky swing of the late Austrian pianist Joe Zawinul, the hard-bop drive and harmonic complexity of saxophonist John Coltrane (the title track is a take-off of his “Giant Steps”), and the deep, Crescent City pocket richly mined by the Marsalis family (on the raggy “New Orleans”). The suite-like “Yansa,” the only track to feature vocals, finds Valdés tackling Yoruba mythology, one infused (unbelievably) with bursts of Cecil Taylor chaos. Some tracks, like the loping “Begin To Be Good,” remain within expected Afro-Cuban parameters; others — “Julian,” for example, written for his youngest son — sound surprisingly like soft rock.
“Before the record I was studying more of the intricacies of the Afro-Cuban rhythms,” Valdés said. “I had never before incorporated the batá drum, and I wanted to play them outside of their usual context, to make the music more poly-rhythmic and more complex.”
Valdés expects his music to develop and grow when he takes the Afro-Cuban Messengers on the road. The tour, which opened last week in Princeton, N.J., starts on the East Coast and heads to the Midwest before it wraps in San Francisco on February 20.
“Every night, the music changes based on two things,” Valdés said. “First, the connection with the audience, which is stronger on some nights versus others, and also the energy the musicians bring to each show. It’s a dynamic, ever-changing thing.”
Chucho Valdés with the Afro-Cuban Messengers, Jan. 27-28, 8 p.m., $34-$55, Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts, 2132 Hillside Rd., UConn campus, Storrs, (860) 486-4226, jorgensen.uconn.edu
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