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JAZZ | SPOTLIGHT

Versatility and Passion From Cuba

*** 1/2 CHUCHO VALDES "Bela Bela en la Habana" EMI / Blue Note

*** DAVID SANCHEZ "Obsesion" Columbia

June 28, 1998|Don Heckman

The wave of jazz-oriented Cuban music that surged across the local music scene in June may have seemed to be an unexpected torrent of activity. It's a bit difficult to imagine how a small Caribbean island nation could produce an accumulation of talented acts such as Bamboleo, Cubanismo, Vocal Sampling, Los Van Van and Arturo Sandoval--all present in Los Angeles during the month of June.

But Cuba has always been a cornucopia of musical creativity. And the socialist system--whatever its other shortcomings--has made it possible for Cuban talent to grow and develop without having to worry about the finances of survival.

L.A.'s Cuban music month concludes tonight with an appearance, appropriately, by the gifted pianist, bandleader and composer Chucho Valdes at the Conga Room. And no other single artist best typifies the tremendous range of music that Cuban artists have been able to synthesize into their creative expression.

"Bele Bele en la Habana," recorded in Toronto last year, features Valdes with the rest of his Havana-based quartet--Alain Rodriguez, bass; Roberto Guillot, percussion; and Raul Roque, drums. The music will come as a challenge to American jazz fans who expect a consistency of style within a single recording.

Valdes is one of the authentic originals active in today's jazz arena. Very much his own man, he is comfortable with everything from rhapsodic Cuban dance music and bebop to percussive, contemporary classical music sounds, lush Art Tatumesque ballads and driving, Afro Cuban rhythms. And he doesn't hesitate to include any within the framework of a given piece.

The music ranges from a son to a mambo, from a danzon to a guaguanco. Valdes kicks off the program with an astoundingly rhythmic "Son Montuno," a signature original from the '60s, in which he shifts from powerful, two-handed, percussive accents to straight-ahead jazz soloing. The Gershwin standard "But Not for Me" is done as a soaringly lyrical line, floated above a mambo-tinged undercurrent.

And that's just the start. Valdes re-energizes the old Latin chestnut "El Cumbanchero" and adds several of his own colorful originals. In sum, it may not, perhaps, be his very finest outing, but Valdes is such a remarkable artist--still heard too rarely in this country--that every available note deserves careful consideration.

*

David Sanchez, who shares the stage with Valdes at the Conga Room tonight, comes from a different part of the Caribbean--Puerto Rico. But the talented tenor saxophonist has already established himself as one of the important young artists of the '90s.

"Obsesion" is a watershed album for Sanchez--a tribute to what he describes as the Cuban, Brazilian and Puerto Rican influences in his music. Performing with a lush ensemble, rich with strings, woodwinds and percussion (orchestrated superbly by Carlos Franzetti), Sanchez applies his driving improvisational style to tunes such as "Omorro Nao Tem Vez" and "Essa Mulher" from Brazil, "Lamento Borincano" and the title track from Puerto Rico, and the lyrical "Los Aretes de la Luna" from Cuba.

The result is a collection that beautifully expresses the full range of Sanchez's playing-- smoothly lyrical on "Essa Mulher" and "Los Aretes de la Luna" (demonstrating his gorgeous sound on both soprano and tenor, respectively), more hard-driving on the rhythmically shifting title track and the percussion-heavy "Lamento Borincano." Both individually and collectively, the tunes--each of which is compelling--provide convincing demonstrations of Sanchez's capacity to distill his Latin inspiration with his unquestioned ability as a jazz man.

*

Chucho Valdes Quartet & the David Sanchez Band, the Conga Room, 5364 Wilshire Blvd. Today, 7 p.m. $27.50-$60. (213) 549-9765.

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