Chucho Valdés salutes his friends and inspirations

Chucho Valdés is a giant of the piano in every sense—a huge man, almost two metres tall, with a matchless command not only of North American and European jazz and the many rhythms of his Cuban homeland, but of classical music, Latin rock, and fusion, as Tony Montague reports in this article for

He’s also an outstanding composer, arranger, and producer whose most recent album, Chucho’s Steps, bagged a Grammy last year for best Latin-jazz album.

He was born into a musical family and started learning piano at three, taught by both his parents, Pilar Rodríguez and Bebo Valdés. Later, young Chucho would perform in the orchestral bands that renowned Afro-Cuban jazz pianist Bebo directe.

“I also learned how to play batá drums and congas, and picked up all the African rhythms,” says Valdés, reached at a hotel in Newark, Ohio. “I apply many concepts of percussion to the piano. When I was a child I was inspired by jazz artists like Art Tatum. Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, Bud Powell. There’s a strong classical strain in my music as well, particularly [Maurice] Ravel, [Claude] Debussy, and other impressionists.”

Irakere, the band Valdés founded in 1973, changed the identity of Cuban jazz, blending Latin styles of the ’40s and ’50s with influences that were both older and newer. “With Irakere my goal was to retain the African roots of Cuban rhythms like the cha-cha-chá and the mambo. We were also the first group in Cuba to use synthesizer and electric guitar, in addition to both a trap set [of drums] and folk percussion.”

In 1998 Valdés formed a quartet—after years of nagging by his friend the late Joe Zawinul, keyboardist with fusion pioneers Weather Report. “We had a great friendship. Irakere was a much bigger band and Joe was always saying I should also work with a smaller formation so that I could play more piano.”

His quartet became a quintet, and Valdés also started working with another formation, named the Afro-Cuban Messengers in homage to Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. The title Chucho’s Steps is a nod to sax legend John Coltrane’s Giant Steps, the longest cut is “Zawinul’s Mambo”, and “New Orleans” is dedicated to the musicians of the Marsalis family.

Valdés composed all the pieces on the album, which mixes bebop, post-bop, Latin swing, and Afro-Cuban rhythms linked with santería beliefs and rituals. “But on this tour I’m with the quintet, and it’s a different repertoire. We don’t yet have an album, but will be recording early next year.”

Despite the rich diversity of his sources Valdés’s music is remarkably cohesive. “From all those elements I have made only one: my own way of working,” he quietly stresses. “It’s a well-defined and personal style, providing a new sonority. There’s still so much within the tradition of Cuban music and in jazz that has yet to be utilized and reimagined.”

The Chucho Valdés Quintet is at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on Friday (November 2).

For the original report go to

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