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Even from my nose-bleed seats at Carnegie Hall last month, Chucho Valdes’ hands looked huge and commanding as they swept across the piano. The reputation of the renowned 70-year-old Cuban musician got a bump 12 years ago in the film Calle 54, in which he reunited with his now 94-year-old piano-playing father, Bebo. Valdes and his band the Afro-Cuban Messengers perform at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts tomorrow night in support of the album Chucho’s Steps. He spoke with me briefly on the phone recently via a translator.
Valdes is a kind of citizen of the world now. He lives in Malaga, Spain, he tells me, but since his wife is from Argentina, he also spends time there. But the setlist at the New York show demonstrated where his musical heart is. “I started with Ellington [“Satin Doll”] and finished with Gershwin [“Summertime”] with Afro-Cuban in between,” he says. Emphasizing Steps tunes between the cover-song bookends, Valdes and his band, all from Cuba, have ample opportunities to show off their range. On “Danzon,” Valdes plays delicately but swings while his trumpet player and acoustic bassist add romantic accents. For “Zawinul’s Mambo” they get funky, incorporating Weather Report’s ‘70s hit “Birdland.” Afro-Cuban numbers such as “Yansa” allow his bandmates to chant folklorically and engage in percussion battles while Valdes shows his ability to play more straight-ahead dance rhythms. But when I ask whether he listens to any contemporary Latin pop sounds, like bachata, reggaeton, or timba, he responds, “I am familiar with them but I like jazz and classical.”
Valdes says this lengthy tour has meant some of the songs from Steps have evolved. “That’s what jazz is all about,” he says. He says that in penning each composition, he decides where to “insert the Afro-Cuban portions.” As much as he enjoys jazz, Valdes made clear with a simple gesture during the Carnegie Hall show encores where his roots are. As the audience began clapping repetitively—-like, well, Americans—-Valdes stopped everyone and began clapping clave-style—one, two, three, pause, four, five. Still in love with playing and recording, Valdes clearly has no interest in retiring. “I play all the time,” he happily proclaims, “at least six hours a day.”
Chucho Valdes and the Afro-Cuban Messengers perform Friday at 8 p.m. at the George Mason Center for the Arts, 4400 University Drive, Fairfax, Va. $23-$46.