It Runs in the Family

Chuchito Valdés and his band fire up the Hot Jazz series

Chuchito Valdés (photo credit: JIM LUCE)
Chuchito Valdés
(photo credit: JIM LUCE)
You can train and practice all you like, but if you ain’t got the genes, you are probably going to have to put in that little bit more to keep up with the scions of great masters. Chuchito Valdés, who will be here from October 26 to 31 to perform seven gigs as part of the first installment of the 2015-16 Hot Jazz series, has undoubtedly got the pedigree.
The 49-year-old Cuban-born pianist, arranger, composer and band leader not only has a famous dad, but his grandfather was one of the mainstays of the golden age. The latter, respectively, are 74-year-old multi- Grammy winning pianist Chucho Valdés and Bebo Valdés, who was a star of the pre-revolution vibrant Cuban music scene and died two years ago at age 94.
The heavy psychological baggage “son of” or “daughter of” complex has been well documented over the years, and the instances of the progeny of famous Hollywood actors or rock stars failing to live up to their famous parent’s reputation make for sorry reading. But Valdes says he had no such career musical pangs. “I never had a problem with that. No one said to me, ‘You’re the son of’ or ‘the grandson of.’ Never.”
In fact, Valdés Jr. got a lot of maternal support and says his mother encouraged him to pursue a career in music. “She told me I had a gift for music. That I was a natural,” he says. Mrs. Valdes was also adept at stringing out a tune herself and was a fine singer. Prior to opting for music, for Valdes it had been a toss-up between tickling the ivories and whacking balls around a park. He showed a talent for baseball, but the age of 13 he decided to follow in his father’s and grandfather’s sizable footsteps.
Valdés got his career off to a flying start, playing his first professional concert at 16. Clearly, he must have inherited some familial steel nerves because he says he was completely unfazed by the occasion. “I was just happy to be playing,” he states. “I wasn’t nervous. I was fine.”
Hereditary gifts or no, Valdés still paid his dues before hitting the professional circuit and trained as a classical pianist. “I played Chopin and Bach,” he recalls. “I think I got a lot of benefit from studying classical piano before I began playing jazz and Cuban music. It was very valuable for me.”
Born and raised in Havana, the oldest of five siblings, Valdés was a child prodigy. Following his teenage performing debut, he went on to mix it with the likes of now 87-year-old Cuban singer and trumpeter Bobby Carcasses and also enjoyed long stints with famous singers Pello El Afrokan and Anibel Lopes. Valdés has described Carcasses as “father, mentor, guide and guru.”
Jazz was an early formative influence, and Valdés says he was exposed to the works of some of the masters who also fired his father’s imagination, including the likes of legendary pianists Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Ahmed Jamal and Erroll Garner. Other than that, Valdés says his father never tried to sway his son’s career choice. “He never told me to sit down and play,” he says.
In the mid-1980s, Valdés was a member of the Cuban jazz combo Sonido Contemporaneo, and by the late 1990s he had taken his father’s spot in the renowned Irakere band when the elder Valdés opted to go solo. Eventually Chuchito followed suit, leading his own band and touring behind his fiery brand of Afro- Cuban jazz.
Valdés has noted that his berth with Sonido Contemporaneo made a significant contribution to his musical development. Interestingly, the group focused primarily on renditions of American jazz standards rather than Latin fare. “I wanted to get deeply into the music, so learning and playing the standards was important for me,” he explains. “I wanted to get to the core of the music.”
Valdés released his debut album, Encantado , in 2002. That was quickly followed by La Timba in the same year and, two years later by Herencia . Valdés’s public profile achieved incremental growth. His 2007 release, Keys of Latin Jazz , was nominated for a Latin Grammy. His next album, Cuban Dreams , which came out in 2009, was also nominated for a Latin Grammy. And he has been in line for a Grammy twice more in the interim, including for the 2013 release Grand Piano Live Piano .
Valdés does not hide his lineage and says he learned a lot from his father, although adding that he is more contemporary. He often expresses his pride in being the progeny of such illustrious musicians and says that music is in his blood. But he adds that his main points of pianistic reference are Peterson, Jamal and Evans. For his shows here, Valdés will be backed by a quintet that includes flutist and saxophonist Salit Lahav; Argentinean-born bassist Fernando Knopf; drummer Yogev Shitreet; and Latin music-driven percussionist Rafael Messica. From October 26 to 31, the band will play at the Jerusalem Theater, the Zappa Club in Herzliya, Einan Auditorium in Modi’in, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and Abba Hushi House in Haifa. Valdés will also perform a children’s show at the Tel Aviv Museum on October 31 at 11 a.m. For tickets and more information: (03) 573-3001 and