In conversation with chuchito valdes jr.
by Tomas Peña
Born in Havana Cuba, Chuchito Valdes Jr. hails from one of the most distinguished and important musical families in Cuba. He has recorded and performed with Irakere, a groundbreaking group that he led for two years. In addition, he has performed at festivals, clubs and concerts throughout the world. His ensemble was featured at the 19th International Havana Jazz Festival (2000), as well as at the Cancún International Jazz Festival in May of 2001 & 2002. The band recently completed a successful U.S tour.
In his youth, Chuchito learned from many Cuban masters, but he also studied classical music including harmony and composition. When he is not traveling around the world performing, Chuchito lives in Cancún, Mexico where he leads his Afro-Cuban based Latin-Jazz ensemble. His original compositions and arrangements draw on a wide variety of classical harmonic and structural techniques and his music reflects many styles including Afro-Cuban Latin Jazz, Bebop, Danzon, Cha-Cha- Cha, Son Montuno among others.
My comments: At first glance, it’s a bit tricky distinguishing Chuchito Valdez Jr. from his father, Chucho (the resemblance is astonishing), but when lays his masterful hands on the ivories there is mistaking the fact that Chuchito is his own person. On stage Chuchito is flamboyant and occasionally “over the top,” but he is as comfortable with a raucous version of Mambo Influenciado as he is with a lyrical danzon. With genes like his, can you blame him for being so exuberant?
Congratulations on an amazing performance. Is this your first visit to New York?
No, I was here about two years ago. I performed at the Jazz Standard and I have performed at Birdland in the past.
It’s been awhile seen we have seen your grandfather, Bebo and your father, Chucho. How are they doing?
They are well thank God.
How does it feel to hail from such an important musical family?
At times it’s difficult. . . . My mother was the person who encouraged me to pursue a career as a musician. She told me that I had a gift for music, that I was a “natural.”
Funny you should mention that. I was just about to ask why you chose the piano.
Believe it or not, I started as a baseball player. . . but my mother always encouraged me to believe that I had options and that I didn’t have to stick to one thing.
What is your mother’s name?
Mercedes. She was a singer in Cuba, but she gave up her career to stay home and take care of the kids!
No doubt, you have been told that the resemblance between you and your father is astonishing. Do the constant comparisons to your father bother you or have you grown accustomed to it?
There is no getting around the fact that we are the spitting image of each other. My face, my body, I look exactly like him. But I don’t feel any pressure. It’s difficult to explain but that’s just the way it is.
So essentially you were born to play the piano.
In school my case was considered strange. I loved baseball but I was drawn to the piano. It created such a stir that the teachers finally came to the conclusion that it would be in my best interest to pursue a career in music.
How old were you at the time?
So at thirteen you turned all of your efforts to mastering the piano?
That’s how it was.
Not long ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Bobby Carcasses. As I understand it he was one of your mentors.
I have a lot of admiration for Bobby Carcasses. The first jazz concert that I ever did was with Bobby, Juan Formell Jr. and Frederico from Los Van Van …
Bobby has been a father, mentor and “guru” to many of the young musicians in Cuba. While he was here, he made a recording with (drummer) Dafnis Prieto, (saxophonist) Yosvany Terry, (pianist) Osmany Paredes, (flutist) Andrea Brachfeld and others. [Note: Carcasses performed at The Jazz Gallery in 2007. The recording has yet to be released.]
For me Bobby has been a father, mentor, guide and guru …
What kind of music did your father play at home?
My father played a lot of Oscar Peterson around the house.
Were there any other American Jazz Artists that had an influence on your father?
Bill Evans, Ahmad Jamal, Erroll Garner …
Did you receive any musical training from your father? Where did you receive your formal training?
I attended the Ignacio Cervantes School for Professional Musicians. In answer to the second question, no, my father never said, “sit down and play this …”
Still, you must have been influenced by listening to him rehearse …
Yes, but my father was away a lot.
Your style is very physical. What goes through your mind when you are performing?
A lot of emotions. I think of my family – my wife, my children …
Your family is in Cancún, Mexico, correct?
You live there permanently?
So you are able to travel freely between Cuba, Mexico and the U.S? Getting back to your style of playing, what else goes through your mind?
Yes I am able to travel to Cuba whenever I like.
[At this point in the interview my partner and interpreter, Nilsa Gutierrez comments that she sensed “a force” guiding Chuchito’s hand and Chuchito literally jumps out of his seat.]
You saw and felt that? Women see things we don’t see …
It’s true. I don’t really know where my power comes from.
Let’s just say it comes from God, a higher power. Pianist Omar Sosa told me the same thing.
Yes, from God. You have to have respect for people that have that kind of vision (looks at Nilsa). Peligro! (Danger!)! Salud y Ache para ti! (Blessings).
[Laughter] Let’s talk about your new CD, Keys of Latin Jazz and a new recording that was just released in Mexico, called Dynastia Valdez, featuring Bebo, Chucho and yourself.
Dynastia Valdez was a surprise to me.
It’s actually a compilation of our music (3 CD’s).
So the three of you are not actually performing together?
And Keys of Latin Jazz?
I recorded that with my group in Chicago. I composed all of the music, with the exception of two songs (by Pedro Flores and Rafael Hernandez).
The composer is listed as Luis Jesus Valdez. Is that your full name?
Yes, Luis Jesus Valdez.
Forgive me for asking but I know you as “Chuchito.”
My father’s name is Jesus Valdez Rodriguez.
Is there any possibility that you might record with your grandfather and your father in the future?
The idea has been in the works for two years. Unfortunately, my grandfather’s record company (Calle 54 Records) is not on board.
I have no idea. We were scheduled to perform at the Blue Note but for some reason, it never happened.
The Blue Note in New York?
No, my father can’t come to New York because of his visa and the political situation.
That’s too bad, I hope the situation resolves itself. On another note, where do you see yourself in the next five years?
First, I would like to earn a Grammy! Then I would like to consolidate my music and decide what else. I want to compose, arrange and perform with a symphony orchestra. And of course, become a better piano player.
At this point in the interview musician Juan Formell Jr. chimes in.
JF: Become a better piano player? What more can be done with the piano? Between you, your father and your grandfather you have exhausted all of the possibilities!
We could add a few more keys … how about ninety-one keys instead of eighty-eight [Laughter). On a more serious note, would you care to comment on U.S./Cuba relations?
I don’t like to discuss politics, however, I would like to see Cuba and the U.S. get back together.
I second that. Do you have any plans to return to New York in the near future?
I will be touring for the next month and performing with my group in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago. Afterwards, I will return to Mexico. I like traveling and working in the states but I enjoy returning home to my family.
I was in Mexico City about three years ago. Jazz wise, there wasn’t a lot happening.
There is one jazz club in Cancún and I play there often [Chucho says the name of the venue but it is unintelligible.] I played there so often that the owner would get angry at me when I went on tour! There is also a jazz festival. I was lucky enough to have the governor of Cancún appoint me as the musical director in 2006.
Is that a yearly event?
It’s supposed to be but last year they the festival was canceled due to lack of support.
When is the festival held?
In May. Please come!
You don’t have to ask me twice!
I hope to become the President of the festival in the future. A lot of people are not aware of the fact that the festival dates back fifteen years. Ray Charles and Tito Puente have performed there in the past.
I hope to see you there. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me.
Thank you. But before you leave, did you enjoy the music? Tell me the truth.
Are you serious? It was amazing. We had a blast! Please give my regards to your family.