Cuban pianist Chuchito Valdes has performed often in Chicago through the years, but his opening set Thursday night at the Jazz Showcase stood far apart from his previous work.
In past performances, Valdes has turned in thoroughly extroverted, often blustery music-making that tended to overwhelm the listener (and sometimes the piano, as well). Though there was no doubting the excitement and athleticism of his pianism, it often has bordered on bombast.
To his great credit, Valdes showed a very different side of his art this time around, producing some of the most sensitive, introspective, understated playing Chicago has heard from him. Yes, there were technical fireworks here, but the essence of Valdes' statement emphasized a lyric poetry that one did not necessarily expect to hear from him.
Valdes, leading a like-minded trio, established the framework of the evening with the opening work, "La Danza de Los Cimarrones." Like almost everything in this set, the piece drew upon traditional Afro-Cuban rhythms, song forms and keyboard devices – an object lesson in Cuban pianism of an earlier, more romantic era.
Opening with a simple line played in unison in both hands, Valdes' phrasing suggested the work of a singer and, perhaps not surprisingly, led him to chant in tandem with his pianism. Slowly but inexorably, his solos gathered texture, the pianist eventually producing the whirring right-hand lines that long have been a hallmark of his style. But he consistently pulled back from the big climax, returning to the simple balladry at the core of the piece. With drummer Rafael Monteagudo and bassist Christopher Nolte offering atmospheric accompaniment, Valdes articulated both his reverence for early Cuban piano vocabularies and his control of piano tone and voicing.
From this point forth, nearly everything Valdes played exuded a sense of history, much of the music drawn from Valdes' album "La Senda de Los Elefantes." Never has this listener heard Valdes dig this deeply into past chapters of Cuban musical vernacular, but he did so through original works that conveyed a freshness of melody and harmony.
This was apparent in "A Lico Jimenez," Valdes' tribute to Jose Manuel "Lico" Jimenez, a pianist-composer who flourished in Cuba – and performed across Europe – around the turn of the previous century. Valdes' homage amounted to a kind of keyboard lullaby, his exquisitely honed melody referencing Jimenez's love of vocal line, while Valdes' lilting rhythms showed the distinction between early Cuban song and its European counterpart.
No Valdes set is complete without at least one showpiece, and Valdes took flight in a transformation of "Over the Rainbow." He began simply, treating the Harold Arlen classic as a kind of jazz nocturne, embellishing the melody with grace notes and other, aria-like ornamentation. Before long, though, Valdes was evoking the spirit – if not quite the letter – of Art Tatum via fast-flying lines and all-over-the-keyboard arpeggios.
The solo ranged far and wide stylistically, from a quasi-baroque section recalling J.S. Bach to dynamic swing suggesting the work of Valdes' father, the colossal pianist Chucho Valdes. The younger man may not have quite the digital command, precision and prowess of the master – who does? – but there was no resisting the sweep of this fantasia on "Over the Rainbow."
That tour de force, however, was the exception in a set that showed there's more to Chuchito Valdes' art than just power. A welcome development.
When: 8 and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4, 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday
Where: Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Court