Chucho Valdés is Cuba’s true envoy

Cuban jazz musician Chucho Valdés performs as part of the “We Always Swing” Jazz Series next Sunday at the Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts, as Aarik Danielsen writes in the Columbia Daily Tribune.

Because diplomatic ties have been strained for more than 50 years, there are few true envoys from Cuba to the United States — and vice versa. However, for a majority of that time frame, Chucho Valdés has unofficially, joyously served as a cultural ambassador from his native country to the United States, spreading an understanding of the pulse of his people through the universal language of jazz.

A recipient of multiple Grammys and Latin Grammys, Valdés plays Columbia next Sunday as a highlight of the current “We Always Swing” Jazz Series season and at an intersection of the series’ creative partnerships — the show serves as the University of Missouri College of Arts and Science Week “Signature Concert” as well as the Dr. Carlos Perez-Mesa Memorial Concert.

Valdés first perked ears in the early 1970s while leading the fusion ensemble Irakere, a group that once included Arturo Sandoval and Paquito D’Rivera. Even from those early, progressive days, notes of heritage and honor have sounded throughout his music. Familial connections have colored Valdés’ career arc — his father, Bebo, is a seminal figure in the big-band world, and his son, Chuchito, has followed in the piano-pedaling footsteps of his father. The moniker of Valdés’ current band, The Afro-Cuban Messengers, is a tribute to the great Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers band. Throughout his music, Valdés sprinkles nods and winks to a spectrum of jazz greats.

However, Valdés’ appreciation of players who were heroes to the wider world does not preclude him from continuing to further the unique rhythms cultivated in his island country. Cuban players possess an interpretative sense and a rhythmic spirit that can’t be found elsewhere, jazz series Director Jon Poses said.

“It’s not a sense of rhythm — it’s the rhythms they use,” said Poses, who also is a Tribune columnist. “They’re really different and complex, almost unpredictable.”

Valdés’ ability to manipulate and navigate those fascinating rhythms are among the qualities that have made him a singular figure in the world of Latin jazz and a fitting figure to play the first-ever Perez-Mesa concert in 2001. Whenever Valdés tours the United States, it’s a special occasion, in part because of the rarity of cultural exchange between the two countries. Poses remembers the evening as a mesmeric one as Valdés seasoned the works of Gershwin and Ellington with Cuban flair, mixing in strains of classical and folkloric music with ease. As memorable was the sight of Valdés, who is approximately 6½ feet tall, at the piano bench. “To see a guy that big handle a 9-foot concert grand — it was visually exciting as well as” musically delightful, Poses recalled.

Valdés’ unique physical presence at the piano, a mix of nimble fingers and daunting frame, was something The Guardian’s John Lewis also noticed at a U.K. date last year. Lewis wrote Valdés “proceeds to play the piano like a cross between the Incredible Hulk and Felix the Cat, thumping out block chords, rattling out octaves and playing complicated flourishes with a dexterity that’s matched by his six-piece” band.

The Perez-Mesa shows began as a way to honor Carlos, a well-regarded pathologist, researcher and friend of the arts who, when he died in 2000, was remembered in the Tribune as “a true Renaissance man.” Carlos and his wife, Laura, immediately embraced the jazz series’ mission, Poses said, and Carlos’ affinity for the jazz of his native Cuba was evident. Several times before Perez-Mesa’s death, Poses invited him to jointly introduce Cuban bands who played the series, with Poses speaking English and Perez-Mesa speaking Spanish.

A fair amount of next Sunday’s set will likely be derived from “Chucho’s Steps,” a 2010 release that won Valdés the Grammy for Best Latin Jazz Album. Poses said the disc holds up on multiple listens, revealing some new detail with each successive spin. He was especially impressed with a section of the disc that tips its cap to the greatness of bassist Jaco Pastorius. There, Valdés manages to play “everything from stride piano to really heavy-hitting percussive music, to both classical and folkloric styles, and place everything seamlessly into the same piece.” It’s that perpetual sense of motion, which is not always announced or hinted at, that Poses said promises to make Valdés’ performance a singular experience.

“It’s like he goes back and forth and sideways. … How do you do that, and how does a band follow that?” he said. “That’s the thing that should be fantastic to watch, … just to see the array of rhythms and time signatures and instrumentation. Some of it’s really delicate and beautiful, and some of it is really heavy-duty. Some of it’s almost orchestral-sounding.”

Valdés and the Afro-Cuban Messengers perform next Sunday at the Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts, with doors opening at 6 p.m. Tickets range from $24 to $35. Visit for more details.

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