Jazz review: Chucho Valdes, Poncho Sanchez and Terence Blanchard


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A deeply soulful and often underrated genre, Latin jazz has been the focus of a controversy lately. When the Recording Academy decided to restructure the Grammy Awards this year and in the process killed the Latin jazz category, the decision was met with wrath by some of the most influential musicians in the field. Latin jazz still matters, they asserted. It deserves to be cherished.

The timing, then, couldn’t have been better for Thursday’s performance by veteran Cuban pianist Chucho Valdés and his Afro-Cuban Messengers at Walt Disney Concert Hall, just days after the Grammy ceremony.


Wonderfully unpredictable, luminous and mercurial, the one-hour set left the capacity audience pining for more. The conclusion was inevitable: So this is what we’d be missing if Latin jazz was silenced.

Valdés is the son of Bebo Valdés, perhaps the most exquisite pianist and bandleader from the golden era of Cuban music. During the ’70s, Chucho stepped boldly into the future by founding Irakere -- the now-mythical group that pioneered the fusion of Cuban folklore, jazz and rock.

At Disney Hall, Valdés was joined by a brand-new sextet that included saxophone, trumpet and a densely textured rhythm section of bass, trap drums, congas and batá percussion. Now that he is 70, Valdés has transcended his own technique. An initial cascade of notes -- crystalline, flying at the speed of light, at times mimicking the funky staccato of percussion -- demonstrated right away his status as a virtuoso. The supernatural technique, however, is just a vehicle for Valdés to voice out a wide array of feelings. At times, the wailing sax and frantic polyrhythms evoked the apocalyptic dissonance of free jazz. But then Valdés would slow down and perform delicate piano patterns, authentic Cuban tumbaos that sounded like futuristic mutations of the cha cha chas and son montunos that his father played for the dancing couples in the ‘50s. And on the smoldering “Obatalá,” Mayra Caridad Valdés -- the bandleader’s sister and guest vocalist -- merged raucous jazz scatting with the Afro chanting of Cuban rumba.

Opening act Poncho Sánchez explored the sweet link that unites Latin jazz with salsa during a set boosted by the presence of trumpet player Terence Blanchard. A juicy cover of the Chano Pozo classic “Ariñáñara” boasted the kind of ferocious swing that makes Afro-Caribbean music such an irresistible proposition.


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--Ernesto Lechner

Top: Chucho Valdés at the piano with his Afro-Cuban Messengers at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Credit: Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times

Below: Poncho Sanchez on congas and Terence Blanchard on trumpet. Credit: Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times