Chucho Valdés has spent his career striking fear into the hearts of his fellow pianists. Off stage, the Cuban maestro is known for his welcoming nature and generous spirit. But on the bandstand, his command of the keyboard, and the way he uses his huge hands to reveal the instrument’s percussive nature, are awe-inspiring.
But more than his peerless technical prowess, what makes Valdés an epochal figure is the seamless way he embraces the musical heritage of three continents. While eminently capable of evoking jazz masters such as Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, and McCoy Tyner, and fluently conversant with the European classical canon, Valdés summons the rhythmic and spiritual riches of Africa by treating the piano like a finely calibrated drum.
Now 80, Valdés may be in the midst of delivering his most comprehensive statement yet.
On Thursday at the Paramount Theater in Oakland, SFJAZZ will present La Creación, a magisterial suite that encompasses the rhythmic and spiritual currents that course through his blood and music (Valdés reprises the work on Friday at the Monterey Jazz Festival). Featuring his Yoruban Orchestra directed by Cuban piano great Hilario Durán and pianist John Beasley of MONK’estra, La Creación recounts the epically tragic and ultimately triumphant historical journey that has shaped his life and creative vision, a sojourn that wends from West Africa to Cuba to the United States.
Absorbing and reshaping musical forms both sacred and secular into a deeply personal vocabulary, he’s created a three-movement suite “that’s the most important work I’ve written yet,” said Valdés, speaking in Spanish. “In the first movement, the story is told how La Regla De Ocha,” the Yoruba faith that spread throughout the African diaspora, “arrived in Cuba from Africa with the slave trade.”
La Creación earned ecstatic reviews in Lyon, Paris, and Barcelona after premiering in November 2021 at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, where Valdés has lived for the past five years. In creating the new suite, he collaborated closely with pianist, arranger, and Grammy Award-winning MONK’estra bandleader Beasley, who saw the work as a reflection of Valdes’ own story.
“The first piece is Coltrane/Elvin meets bata,” Beasley said, referring to John Coltrane, drummer Elvin Jones, and the double-headed drum used in sacred Afro-Cuban rituals. “It’s about Chucho being a teenager and a working pianist in Havana embracing bebop and Coltrane and Bill Evans and all the people he came into contact with. The second is about working at the Tropicana, a beautiful, deep ballad, a bolero.”
As the scion of a storied musical family who was weaned on American jazz, Afro-Cuban rhythms, and the European classical tradition, Valdés has spent much of his career in the vanguard of the Cuban jazz movement. In many ways, it’s a role he was born to play. His father, legendary pianist Bebo Valdés, who died in 2013 at the age of 94, was one of Havana’s most important bandleaders before the 1959 revolution.
Chucho was still a teenager when he took over the piano chair in his father’s groundbreaking orchestra, a group that often accompanied visiting American jazz musicians. “So I learned a lot about jazz as a child, and a lot about African music because it was played all the time in my house,” Valdés said.
When his father fled Cuba in 1960, eventually settling in Switzerland, Valdés decided to stay and finish his studies. Quickly gaining recognition as the most formidable pianist of his generation, he recorded two albums for RCA Victor at the age of 18. His reputation spread while working with the Elio Reve Orquesta in the mid-‘60s and by the end of the decade Valdés was writing extended compositions incorporating all the different music he was reared on, paying particular attention to sacred Afro-Cuban chants and rhythms.
Starting in the mid-’60s with the Orquesta Cubana de Musica Moderna, and most famously with the band Irakere in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Valdés has been at the forefront of a revolutionary musical movement building on folkloric Afro-Cuban chants and rhythms (when he left the Orquesta Cubana to launch Irakere in 1973, he tapped Durán to take his place as the acclaimed ensemble’s primary arranger and pianist).
With his limited exposure in the U.S., Valdés’s influence was mostly felt for many years as a composer via groundbreaking works like “Misa Negra” (Black Mass). The breakthrough came in 1997 when he was reintroduced to American audiences while touring widely with trumpeter Roy Hargrove following the release of his Grammy-winning album Habana (Verve). Subsequently signed to Blue Note, Valdés started releasing a series of ever more astonishing albums, starting with 1998’s Bele Bele En La Havana.
“The man is a force of nature,” Hargrove told me at the time. “His whole approach is so complete. It’s like everything’s there, from the hippest jazz to the deepest West African grooves. And his sound is so big and resonant, it’s like you’re being pushed along by a hurricane.”
Valdés’s most recent album, 2018’s Jazz Batá 2 (Mack Avenue Records), revisited the innovative group he documented in 1972 by incorporating batá drums into a jazz trio setting, replacing the trap set with the sacred, hourglass-shaped drums used in various Cuban spiritual traditions derived from the Yoruba pantheon. The island’s rhythmic riches, Valdés points out, stemmed from Spain’s mistaken belief that Cuba contained buried treasure.
“It’s the largest island in the Caribbean and the Spaniards thought there was going to be a lot of gold there and they brought more slaves from different regions of Africa than to any other place,” he said. “They came from Congo and Nigeria with their culture and rhythms, the Bantu and Dahomey, so a rich cultural and rhythmic world accumulated, a culture that probably doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world. And not just because of Africa—the Spaniards had the Arab and Moorish influence too.”
In many ways, La Creación expands on themes and ideas that Valdés has been exploring for more than half a century. A lion in winter who’s still leading the pack, Valdés continues to teach us how to see the world. With La Creación, he’s delivered a masterwork that tells the story anew.