6 Questions with Chucho Valdés

Published in Billboard Magazine December 04, 2010
By Judy Cantor-Navas, Los Angeles



Pianist Chucho Valdes will perform at the International Jazz Plaza Festival later this month in Havana, where recent events have prepped the stage for a new revolution in jazz—or at least the kind of memorable jam by renowned Cuban and American players thwarted in recent years by U.S. restrictions on travel to the island. Valdes, 69, has just left behind his longtime presidency of the festival to spend more time touring with his Afro-Cuban Messengers, heard on his latest album, "Chucho's Steps" (Four Quarters Entertainment).

The founder of pioneering group Irakere, son of former Tropicana house pianist Bebo Valdes and godfather of more than one generation of musicians in Cuba, Valdes will start the new year teaching at Havana's Instituto Superior de Arte, where a jazz curriculum that he initiated will premiere in 2011.

Billboard talked to Valdes before a recent concert in Los Angeles during his first U.S. visit in seven years.

1. You were the director of the International Jazz Plaza Festival from 1996 until this year. Past performers included Dizzy Gillespie, and this year Arturo O'Farrill and other artists plan to make the trip from the United States. What else can people expect to experience in Havana?

What's great is that you can hear some amazing young Cuban musicians as well as established artists from all over the world. There's a competition where students are chosen to play at the festival.

2. Many musicians have left Cuba in the last 15 years and settled elsewhere. Has that absence affected the quality of education at Cuba's famous music schools, and Cuban music in general?

Actually, in spite of that I think the young musicians in the conservatory today are even better than before. There are so many very talented, very young jazz groups. And now for the first time we are going to have an official jazz curriculum at the conservatory. My idea is that it be a course of study totally based on improvisation.

3. How would you describe the Cuban approach to piano playing?

It's always based on rhythm, Afro-Cuban polyrhythms with two hands. From there, it's whatever happens. In my improvisations I might introduce a phrase from Charlie Parker, or Debussy, but it's just a wink to them, starting with that harmonic structure on my way to somewhere else.

4. What was the concept behind Irakere, which you formed in 1973?

The kind of jazz we played, introducing Afro-Cuban roots music, [sacred] bata drums, the Yoruban and Lukumi languages into jazz, was groundbreaking. They say that in Cuba there is "before Irakere" and "after Irakere."

5. The average age of the musicians in your current band, the Afro-Cuban Messengers, is around 30. How do they sound?

We're working with new combinations, because it is a new generation of musicians with new ideas. For example, there's a great mix of congas and bata, and the drums have a different feeling that's fresher and more contemporary.

6. Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra recently performed and gave workshops in Havana. Is this the start of a new era in which more American artists perform in Cuba and vice versa?

Wynton's visit to Havana was a historic event for musicians there. This could be the beginning of a greater exchange that will be very important not only for Cuban and American culture, but universally. Nevertheless, we have always had access to information in Cuba to keep up to date on what is happening musically. And we've had a chance to get together with American musicians when we go to festivals in Europe. So despite the obstacles, we've never been completely apart from one another.