The Montclair Jazz Festival produced by Jazz House Kids, has grown from a small community event to a major cultural offering attracting a wide audience from across the region. Jazz House Kids is a community-based arts organization with a mission to provide year-round musical, educational, and cultural programs to students in grades K-12, teachers, adults, and families from diverse backgrounds.
The closing line-up performance was Chuchito Valdés. Jesus “Chuchito” Valdés was the closing entertainer for the annual Montclair Jazz Festival, that occurred last week. During the first half of an overwrought set, Valdés delved into Afro-Cuban repertoire, a distinguished body of work he was virtually born into: His father is the eminent Cuban pianist Chucho Valdés and his grandfather the revered pianist-composer Bebo Valdés (who penned the evocative score to the recent, Oscar-nominated film “Chico & Rita”). Sometimes familial pressure forces a son into his father’s profession. Chuchito Valdés, claims to have never felt this pressure, but works as a great Latin jazz pianist all the same. Together, the three Valdés performers make up the single most famous musical family in Cuban jazz, if not Cuban music altogether, and Chuchito is now one of the most exciting piano players around in his own right.
“My dad did the best thing,” Chuchito said with an earnest tone. “He told me I had to study. This was the best approach because what happens when a parent tells a kid he has to do something? It’s fatal. If you get used to your dad teaching you something you, you won’t want to do it.” Despite his hands-off approach, Cuchito feels it’s critical to pass along to his children the activities that nourished him as a child in order to provide them with the self-faith they need to stably journey along their path through a world that’s, according to Chuchito, “a little nuts.” And music, in his view, is an ideal gift to share across the generations, musing that, “If you have a house with harmony, you have peace and tranquility.”
Last year, Chuchito, also a composer, recorded his most recent album — which is planned for release this summer — with a 14-piece Latin jazz band, in front of a live studio audience at WNYC in New York City. It is a tribute to his grandfather Bebo, who passed away last year, at age 94. “I had a lot of respect for my grandfather,” says Chuchito. “He was the motor of my family. He was way ahead of his time. Bebo did a lot of arrangements for world-famous musicians.” In this album, the third-generation musician explains his mission is to celebrate Bebo’s legacy and impact around the world by going back to the beginning and performing his grandfather’s arrangements from the Tropicana Nightclub in Havana, where Bebo played the 1950s. Chuchito, however, is throwing in a splash of his own more contemporary notes.
Valdés performed at the festival, some of his pieces in honor to Bebo, his legacy by forging his Afro-Cuban sound in a way that he describes as “distinct but along the same path” as that of his two immediate predecessors. Growing up, he absorbed the Art Blakey, Oscar Peterson, Duke Ellington and Juan Tizol records that influenced his father and emphatically noted to himself that he’d like to develop the skill to auditorily resemble them. But within his own Mambo, Danzon, Timba, Guaguanco, Classical, Bebop, Danzon, Cha-cha-cha and Son Montuno compositions, he infuses rock and funk rhythms and melodic structures to build upon – rather than repeat – the music of his family. He then played some latin and jazz standards. And in “Over the Rainbow,” he showed he can craft a gently turned phrase when so inclined. So the problem, really, had more to do with taste than talent. Valdes can play with sensitivity and finesse.
Chuchito Valdés showed deep sensitivity to the rhythmic sway and melodic lilt of this music, but only during the lyric passages that opened each selection. He’s an intense performer, with a modernistic Afro-Cuban style that’s magnanimous in demeanor and bursting with energy. Some jazz intusist have been critical of Chichito’s aggresive styles, and as with some rumba and latin jazz performers the piano can be play both as a spring and percussion instrument. Some critics has described playing as “pianistic pugilism, punishing the keyboard with sledgehammer blows, one fistful of notes following another. Virtually every Afro-Cuban selection followed this formula, a beguiling introduction answered with bursts of noise. He threw off certain fast-running passages with utter clarity and control – before leaning again on the sustaining pedal and turning to musical hyperbole.”
In this video clip, you see Valdés both exercise his delicate touch playing poly-rhythmically and utilize his entire forearms to lay into the piano. He quotes from Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” around before moving into an unaccompanied wild, almost Tatum-esque – if Art Tatum were born in Cuba and not the States – section of his own rhapsody. Finally, he abandons the keys altogether, using his knuckles to turn the inside of the piano into a percussion instrument. The physicality of his playing, which you can clearly see here as he sits down, stands up, and sings his piano parts throughout, is truly amazing. As one audience member repeatedly yells, “me gusta!”