Cuban pianist Jesus "Chucho" Valdes lived up to his reputation Sunday night at the Conga Room. Viewed as one of the most talented, most creatively far-ranging artists in the present golden era of Cuban jazz, he put on an impressive display of his numerous skills.
Valdes, 57, has been in the vanguard of Cuban jazz since he was one of the founding members and the music director of the highly praised ensemble Irakere, the first Cuban jazz band to win a Grammy Award (in 1978). And, although he has appeared in various settings in the U.S. in the past decade, this was his first Los Angeles club date, leading his own Havana-based quartet.
A large, rangy man with a shaved head, Valdes was enthusiastically greeted by a full house at the Conga Room, and almost immediately dipped into his bag of musical tricks. Relying mostly on original works or arrangements of classic Cuban tunes, he poured out a cornucopia of colorful solo passages. Rich, clanging, McCoy Tyneresque chords were alternated with jagged, arpeggiated flairs. Then, suddenly shifting gears, Valdes became softly lyrical, his lush harmonies ornamented with dazzling keyboard runs reminiscent of Art Tatum. Just as quickly, he switched from his jazz-based qualities to roiling left-hand tumbaos, the surging rhythmic element fundamental to so much Cuban music.
On one number he tossed in a whimsical exchange with percussionist Roberto Vizcaino Guillot, laying down complex piano passages and challenging Vizcaino Guillot to respond on congas. The interaction was typical of the comfortable, easygoing connection between Valdes and his players (who also included Alain Perez Rodriguez, bass, and Raul Pin~eda Roque, drums).
The lengthy program, which ran well past midnight, also included a high-energy set by Puerto Rican saxophonist David Sanchez and his quintet. Generally acknowledged as one of the important new young players of the '90s, Sanchez chose to emphasize his funk-driven, audience-pleasing style rather than the rich stylistic versatility present on his latest album, "Obsesion" (Columbia).