An Essential Listening Guide to the Music of Chucho Valdés

The word “legendary” hardly seems enough to describe Chucho Valdés. The renowned Cuban musician, composer and bandleader has six Grammy Awards, three Latin Grammy Awards, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Latin Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences and has been inducted into the Latin Songwriters Hall of Fame. He is both a classically trained virtuoso on the keyboard and a captivating percussionist that has revived and transformed the use of traditional instruments such as the batá drum. As both a solo performer and a bandleader, Valdes has been a leading figure in the Afro-Cuban jazz scene for over 50 years.

Now Valdes is bringing his distinctive Latin Jazz to the Wortham Center on Feb. 8 as part of Da Camera’s Jazz Series. We’ve combed through his extensive discography spanning over 50 years to give listeners a broad overview of Valdés’s sound and what to expect at his upcoming Houston show.

Son No. 1

Chucho Valdés is known for his astonishing virtuosity at the keyboard, which reflects his early classical training. That virtuosity is on display here. It’s easy to see why The New York Times calls him “a pianist of imperial command, possessed of a dazzling, deceptively casual virtuosity.”

Tres Palabras (Bebo Valdés & Chucho Valdés)

Chucho Valdés is the son of Dionisio Ramón Emilio Valdés Amaro, better known as Bebo Valdés. Bebo was a Cuban pianist, bandleader, composer and arranger. He was a central figure in the golden age of Cuban music, led two famous big bands, and was one of the “house” arrangers for the Tropicana Club. While Bebo Valdés defected from Cuba when Chucho was young, the two reconciled in 1977, and later collaborated many times. Here Chucho and Bebo perform a two-piano version of the classic song “Tres Palabras.”

El Viandero (Irakere)

The influence of Chucho Valdés’s band Irakere on Latin Jazz cannot be overstated. They won the Grammy Award for Best Latin Recording in 1980 with their album Irakere. One particularly relevant innovation associated with Irakere was their use of the batá and other folkloric drums. Alumni of the band include such notable figures as Paquito D’Rivera and Arturo Sandoval. This live performance gives a sense of the rhythmic vitality and showmanship of the band. While Chucho Valdés is not prominently featured in the video, he appears briefly at 3:08.

Jazz Batá 2

Chucho Valdés’s latest recording and ensemble revisits his classic recording, Jazz Batá, his fourth album released in 1972. While not of the best quality, in this video we get a glimpse of the current band with Yelsy Heredia on bass, Dreiser Durruthy Bombale on percussion and Yaroldy Abreu on the congas. We’re particularly enjoying the joyful interaction between Heredia and the two percussionists.

100 Años de Bebo

Finally, check out a track from the studio recording Jazz Bata 2, “100 Years of Bebo.” According to Billboard, “the album includes a song that Chucho’s father often played on the piano at home when he was a boy. “I never heard it on any album,” he told the audience at [a recent] Barcelona concert. Nor had he heard his father call it by name. Valdés titled the track simply “100 Años de Bebo” (“One Hundred Years of Bebo”). The track features guest violinist Regina Carter.

Da Camera presents Chucho Valdés on Friday, Feb. 8 at 8 pm at the Cullen Theater, Wortham Theater Center. Tickets start at $42.50 and can be purchased online or by calling 713-524-5050.