The almost palpable excitement surrounding Saturday night’s concert by Cuban jazz pianist Chucho Valdés and his group was tempered by the terrible news from Paris – brought home by the long line of people stretching around the Fillmore Miami Beach waiting to go through heightened security checks. But Gene de Souza, the Rhythm Foundation’s development director, delivered a wonderful answer in a quote by Leonard Bernstein from the stage. "Our response to violence will be to make music more beautiful and intense than ever," he said, to applause from the packed auditorium.
And the music from Valdés and his nine exceptional musicians, plus two surprise Miami guests, was as beautiful and intense as music could be - virtuosic, soulful, filled with life and power, everything we hope that art can offer.
The concert was in homage to Irakere, the revolutionary Cuban jazz fusion group that Valdes co-founded in 1973. And the multiple generations of musicians onstage (physically and spiritually) were in themselves a tribute, not just to Irakere, but to the power of music to survive.
Most of the musicians in the band hadn’t been born when Irakere was founded, and learned their craft playing its compositions. Valdés performed on the same grand piano that his father Bebo Valdés played in a Rhythm Foundation concert at the Fillmore in 2006. The most emotional number of the night was Caridad Amaro (Bitter Charity), which Chucho dedicated to his father, "to whom I owe my life."
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He meant literally and musically – his father, from whom Chucho was estranged for several decades after Bebo left Cuba in 1960, was his first and most important teacher. Hovering over the keyboard, Valdés started with melancholy whiffs of classic Cuban songs before launching into thrilling emotional extremes: right hand rippling in aching trills of speed and sweetness as his left hand raged in powerful chords; pulling back to quiet, melancholy melody in intimate tandem with bassist Gaston Joya, rising to thundering dissonance before resolving into harmony and the briefest hint of El Manisero, the most famous of Cuban songs.
Most of the concert was made up of Irakere compositions and marked by the group’s mix of Afro-Cuban music (both its ritual soulfulness and its vertiginous off-center rhythms), jazz virtuosity, and elaborate, beautifully constructed structures. The charismatic Dreiser Durruthy Bombalé launched the opener, Juana 1600, with incantatory vocals and echoing bata (religious ritual) drums. In Tabu, the most traditionally jazzy number, percussionist/conguero Yaroldy Abreu and drummer Rodney Barreto filled in the sultry melodies of the three trumpet and two saxophone players with a multiplying web of rhythms, building momentum but not speed. (Among the brass players, trumpet player Manuel Machado, with his singing solo in Tabu, and Reinaldo Melian, with his sharp intensity, stood out.)
Commanding it all was Valdés. His virtuosity was extraordinary - combining power and fluidity, rhythms exquisitely defined at vertiginous speed, now subtle, now firey, hands rippling, pounding, trilling. On Estela va a estallar (Stella is going to explode), a cleverly titled homage to the standard Stella by Starlight, he deftly deconstructed the melody, stroking a precisely calibrated waterfall of notes from the keyboard, leaping up to salute the triumphantly blasting horns with a shout. For Lorena’s Tango (an homage to his wife), he marched from strutting tango to a kind of stride piano to contradanza, bassist Joya sliding raunchily along, before ripping into such an exuberant avalanche of sounds that it seemed he must be playing with four hands, not two.
Even with the increasing normalization of relations between Cuba and Miami, Saturday’s concert felt like a landmark event. The audience gave Valdés a standing ovation the moment he walked onstage. It was sprinkled with Cuban and Cuban-American cultural figures, including author Leonardo Padura; Nat Chediak, whose label Calle 54 was home to Bebo Valdes; jazz pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba; the manager of Gente de Zona; Valdés’ son Chuchito Valdés, also a pianist. Some had endured hostility for bridging the island and Miami.
Valdés added a strand to that bridge Saturday when he brought out an original Irakere member, saxophonist Carlos Averhoff, a longtime Miami resident who has been strongly opposed to rapprochement with the island, to startled and rapturous applause. (Conguero Wickly Nogueras, another local legend, also joined in.) Averhoff joined the band on Mambo Influenciado, with a rich and powerful solo that belied his stooped, elderly appearance, while the younger generation of horn players stood with their hands clasped over their hearts, and the percussionists grinned in amazement. There were many years when bitterness and anger made such a moment impossible. But on Saturday night, the music won out. The concert ended with Bacalao con Pan, Irakere’s irrepressible breakout dance hit, parading out in an old school conga as the crowd shouted along.