Cover of the album Chucho's Steps, by Chucho Valdés and Afro Cuban Messengers. Photo and design: Alejandro Pérez and Pedro Vázquez.

Los pasos de Chucho, or Chucho’s Steps

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The most surprising thing about Chucho Valdés is perhaps that he is always doing something different as a composer and arranger, generating ideas for a wave change, of orchestral format, of concept. In this sense, Chucho’s Steps is partly a change of course, of focus if you like, although linked to all his previous work, always coherent and reaching a greater dimension.

If we ignore his formative years with Cuban big bands (Sabor de Cuba, of Bebo Valdés, Orquesta del Teatro Musical de La Habana, Orquesta Cubana de Música Moderna), his real career not only as a pianist but especially as a composer and arranger, takes off with his dedication to Irakere for 20 years. Already in the 90s, after some records together with singers, he began his recordings in front of a quartet, with a different musical writing and concept than Irakere. But simultaneously Chucho was deepening and giving a new art form to the Afro-Cuban component in our music from its spiritual roots.

In Chucho’s Steps, there is also an integration of its last two stages, extending the quartet without reaching the "orchestra" format. The most important thing in this process is to check the emphasis on writing and not just improvisation. It is curious to see that other great and virtuous jazz soloists are embarking on a similar path today, among them Wayne Shorter, Wynton Marsalis, Herbie Hancock, Randy Weslon and even Ornette Coleman, who had been the most representative figure of pure improvisation with the movement of the free jazz. My impression is that it is about getting out of a somewhat stagnant situation, to take jazz —and Latin jazz— to another level, where renewal and innovation, linked to the most authentic roots, are able to overcome the chaos of trends, the fragmentation of styles, routine and the usual enemy: commercialism.

In this CD, the ingenuity of some titles is striking, such as Zawinul Mambo, Begin to Be Good or Las dos caras. Due to the character of some themes and passages, several numbers are impregnated with a spirit related to the hymn, the march and the individual or collective tribute. For example, the first is obviously a tribute to the great keyboardist and co-director of Weather Report, just as Chucho’s Steps is a tribute to John Coltrane. But some titles are also misleading, such as Begin to Be Good, which summarizes two famous standards, one by Cole Porter (Begin the Beguine) and the other by George Gershwin (< i>Lady Be Good); or The two faces, which can be more than two, including a kaleidoscope of Afro-Latin rhythms, based on an initial thematic nucleus.

Danzón, far from being an image of the traditional and “typical”, bears the stamp of Chucho Valdés: it is to make a danzón that is many things at once and transcends them all, and where the imprint of the danzón and its sound atmosphere is intertwined with that of Chucho. It begins with a slow theme (song, ballad or bolero) by the tenor sax Carlos Miyares, in the post Coltrane style, followed by rhythmic passages with an atmosphere of the old danzón and then moving on to chachachá, the hybrid, and successor that dethroned him. In other words, it is rather a metaphor for the danzón, something like El Salón México, the masterful film by Indio Fernández recalling what the “mecca” of danzón was in Mexico.

Going back to Chucho's Steps, perhaps the emblem of the album, is like an answer (or bet) to John Coltrane on how to make an acrostic, crossword puzzle or mathematical formula similar to Gigantic steps, by Trane, without falling into the purely formal and preserving the musical beauty and the swing. In Giants Steps, Coltrane achieved this in 32 measures grouped into 16 + 16, in turn subdivided to infinity, creating an almost hypnotic effect by also strategically playing with the harmonic progression. Parallel scheme, complex and simple at the same time, but which requires the interpreter to master all kinds of arpeggios and scales in order to improvise at that furious tempo, with Coltrane's ease.

Chucho learned it all —and with his "tricks"— and as a composer he responds with a different combination, which rounds off his piece in just 50 bars. Furthermore, the number with its improvisations and variants is divided into sections such as a concert form or a suite. The extensive ensemble passages, with a hard bop sound, have that aforementioned hymn or march character, despite the ostinato of the piano and the rich accompaniment of percussion. Another section includes excellent solos by the tenor saxophone and by the trumpeter Reynaldo Melián, followed by the piano: Chucho shows clarity, lyricism, attack, transparency here, a whole sample of piano maturity, and with unusual discretion. The ending is a free-for-all of the percussion (tumbadoras and pailas), in solos with virtuosic precision.

Interiores del álbum Chucho's Steps, de Chucho Valdés y Afro Cuban Messengers. Fotos: Alejandro Pérez.
Interiors of the album Chucho’s Steps, by Chucho Valdés and Afro Cuban Messengers. Photos: Alejandro Pérez.

Let's say in passing that this is one of the three longest numbers on the CD, along with the first and second (eight to 11 minutes each), although in complexity New Orleans and Yansá (four to seven minutes). If we look closely, we are dealing with a kind of I-Ching, lfá board or Kabbalah, a combinatorial art in which Chucho plays with numbers of different duration and/or character, for example, the first ones are 1-2-8 and the 5-6 seconds, while the simplest and softest would be 2-4-7. But not everything is as simple as it seems, nor Chucho as naive or mechanistic. Thus, the numbers in which the amalgam bars abound (5/4, 7/4, etc.) respond to the combination 1-3-8, (first, third and Yansá).

New Orleans, at just 4:45 in length, a tribute to the Marsalis family and to the "mother city of jazz" has interesting variations: opening theme in 4/4, bridge in 6/8, improvisations back to four and with walking bass, then something like a historical passage, the transformation of ragtime into jazz accomplished by Jelly Roll Morton. It all ends with a collective improvisation "New Orleans-esque". And Begin to Be Good is, without a doubt, the most relaxing piece on the CD, with lyrical solos of tenor saxophone, trumpet and piano. These sedative minutes are like preparing us to receive New Orleans and then as powerful Orisha as Yansá (better known in Brazil, and in Cuba as Oyá), who punishes us with the storms and even dominates Death itself, guardian of the cemeteries.

Due to its status as an orisha that is also related to Changó and others, music also changes its character, and we are not talking about “descriptive music”, much less, but about the dynamics that come from or are inspired by the cult, although neither it is about reproducing the music of the ritual. Musical effects and resources to evoke the sacred are very free and include direct handling of the piano strings and free collective improvisation, call it free jazz or random music. And especially impressive is the singing to Oyá, by the choir and its leader and solo voice Dreiser Durruthy Bombalé, as well as the essential batá, the sacred drums of the Yoruba.

With Julián, dedicated to Chucho's youngest son, we are dealing with a melodic theme that ranges from lyrical to playful, with blues inflections and at the same time a lullaby. A real achievement, to which the sax and trumpet solos contribute; in short, the wonder of simplicity when it is inspired by tenderness. In Las dos caras you have to be careful not to lose the "thread of the plot" between the passages of the ensemble, the solos, the use of double-time and the changes first to a rhythm and atmosphere of guaguancó and then to samba. A set of communicating mirrors or glasses is established, and it seems that they were not two faces, but many, as many will be the possible interpretations of the title.

In summary, the CD is exceptional for gathering experimentation with virtuosity and spontaneity. Or the three things that another advanced creator and pianist like Horace Silver demands from jazz: strength, emotion and intellect. I think that the closest antecedents of Chucho Valdés in this prodigious path are New Conceptions and in part Briyumba Palo Congo. The new concepts that we find now renewed in Chucho’s Steps involve the composition of each piece and its dimension in various parts, in the manner of a concert or a suite. This emphasis on compositional creation must respond to that need to change course at moments of musical crisis in various fields, a situation that other great jazz colleagues have not failed to perceive, and the same is true of Latin jazz.

Me gustaría añadir, respecto al latin jazz, al que prefiero llamar jazz afrolatino, que ya basta de exaltarlo diciendo que es la “única forma de jazz que puede bailarse”. Esto es hacerse cómplice de todos los nuevos engendros bailables de los últimos años, e ignorar que cualquier tipo de música debe brillar por su calidad y belleza intrínsecas. Chucho Valdés triunfó con Irakere en todos los terrenos, incluyendo el bailable, pero optó por aspirar a lo más difícil. Por ejemplo, en este CD se combinan fundamentalmente cuatro lenguajes musicales con gran efectividad: hard bop, jazz modalfree jazz y música ritual afrocubana. Chucho demuestra que no es una fórmula, es una forma expresiva que no solo se disfruta a plenitud, sino que sobre todo deja un mensaje y señala (con el permiso de Elegguá) uno o varios caminos que se deben seguir.

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