Chucho Valdés' Latin jazz comes to Disney Hall

Among the accolades heaped on Cuban pianist Chucho Valdés is a honorary citizenship from the city of New Orleans.

"The mayor gave me the title," Valdés, 71, said recently, speaking by phone in Spanish and plainly savoring the memory.

It's not the first time that New Orleans has swapped gifts with Cuba, or vice versa. Culturally, as well as economically, they've been locked in a centuries-long clench that has survived shifting musical currents, to say nothing of revolutions, economic embargoes and inflammatory political rhetoric.

"Certainly, between New Orleans and Cuba there's a very important parallel, through ragtime, Jelly Roll Morton, la habanera and the music of this time," Valdés continued.

The Cuban-Crescent City connection will infuse Thursday night's concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall, where Valdés will lead his band, the Afro Cuban Messengers, in a program that also includes conga master Poncho Sanchez and his Latin Jazz Band performing with trumpeter and New Orleans native Terence Blanchard.

The Texas-born Sanchez, a longtime Southern California resident, said he'll play several tracks from his band's latest CD, a tribute to two Latin jazz godfathers, Dizzy Gillespie and Cuban percussionist-songwriter Chano Pozo, who collaborated, briefly but significantly, in New York City in the late 1940s.

Musicologists, as well as musicians on both sides of the Florida Straits, have long been aware of the partial Cuban pedigree of U.S. jazz. The creolized French-Haitian dance music later known as habanera, or contradanza, migrated from Cuba to New Orleans, St. Louis and other U.S. cities around the turn of the 20th century, where it was assimilated and transformed by ragtime composers and incipient jazz founders such as Morton and Scott Joplin.

Valdés, a multiple Grammy Award winner who's inevitably described as the dean of Latin jazz, is a walking — or, more accurately, mamboing — encyclopedia of U.S. jazz. The name Afro Cuban Messengers, quite obviously, is a hat-tip to jazz drummer Art Blakey and his band the Jazz Messengers, the protean ensemble that at various times employed Wayne Shorter, Wynton Marsalis (another New Orleans native) and Blanchard.

"It's like a salute, no?" Valdés said. "During my musical formation, I listened a lot to Art Blakey's music. And Blakey was a generator of new young talent. He was like a school of American jazz."

Today, the artist and his father, Bebo Valdés, the seminal pianist, composer and house bandleader at Havana's legendary Hotel Tropicana (where the younger Valdés saw Buddy Rich, Sarah Vaughan and Nat King Cole perform live) are Cuba's closest equivalent to the Marsalis clan, the first family of U.S. jazz. Fittingly, Valdés' latest album, "Chucho's Steps," includes a track, "New Orleans," dedicated to the Marsalis family, whose patriarch, Ellis Marsalis, he has known since the 1970s.

"I was born into the world of [U.S.] jazz and the world of Cuban music and African music," Valdés said. "I saw Billy Eckstine. I saw Cab Calloway live with his band, and he was incredible."

He paused to summon his best impression of Calloway's suave grit. "Hi de hi de ho!" Valdés said, amid loud guffaws that required no translation.

What: Chucho Valdes & The Afro Cuban Messengers • Cubano Be Cubano Bop: Poncho Sanchez & His Latin Jazz Band with Terence Blanchard

Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall

When: 8 tonight.

Price: $39 to $111 (remaining seats).


Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World