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Jazz Review

Heavy-Handed 'Chucho' Valdes Is Content to Punch the Clock

April 09, 2001|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Pianist Jesus "Chucho" Valdes has been one of the giants of Afro-Cuban jazz since he founded the group Irakere in the early '70s. The technical virtuosity of his playing, his command of styles ranging from Art Tatum to McCoy Tyner, and his capacity to integrate Cuban rhythms into the flow of jazz have resulted in some extraordinary performances. Earlier this year, his "Live at the Village Vanguard" received a best Latin jazz album Grammy Award.

Despite his extraordinary musical strengths, Valdes' performances have often been roller coaster rides, their ups and downs deeply affected by a view of jazz that tends to be inclusive to a fault. Generous and open-minded as that may appear, it tends to produce playing that makes little distinction between rhapsodic pianism, airy bop lines, rippling tumbaos and anything else that comes to his mind. For the most part, that hasn't been a problem. Valdes is a major artist, and even his lightweight musical asides can be compelling, especially when the creative aspects of his musical imagination are fully in charge.

Unfortunately that hasn't always been the case. Recent Valdes appearances have seemed far less coherent, much more at the mercy of the piano gimmickry that he executes with such ease. His program at El Camino's Marsee Auditorium on Friday night was a case in point. Ranging even further than usual into technical displays for their own sake, his performance minimized the presence of his unquestioned creative abilities.

The program included a few Valdes originals, an extended medley of Duke Ellington tunes and a set of variations on the standard "You Don't Know What Love Is." The medley resolved its frequent uncertainties happily with a rendering of "Caravan" underscored with rich, Afro-Cuban rhythms. "You Don't Know What Love Is" began promisingly, with a tender, understated evocation of the melody. But tenderness was quickly set aside in favor of more bombastic pursuits.

*

And that, for the most part, was the theme of the evening, with Valdes primarily emphasizing his great percussive strengths, concentrating upon crowd-pleasing patterns of repetition and showy keyboard sweeps, only rarely finding contact with his creative muse.

His players--bassist Lazaro Rivero Alarcon, drummer Ramses Manuel Rodriguez Bazalt and drummer Yaroldy Abreu Robles--filled in the gaps efficiently but without any special sense of musical inspiration. Like Valdes, they seemed to simply be putting in another musical day at the office.

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