The hype blaring from the East Coast about Cuban pianist Chucho Valdes was suffocating, the two-hour-plus delay until showtime at the Conga Room Sunday night was interminable. But amazingly, the music was worth the ballyhoo and the wait, for Valdes and his Cuban rhythm mates put on an awesome display of Afro-Cuban jazz that would have blown away almost anyone.
At last, we were hearing the real unchained Valdes, whereas previous recent appearances with Irakere and Roy Hargrove’s Crisol offered mere controlled glimpses of what he could do. A big man physically, he looms almost impassively over the keyboard, tossing off the most mind-boggling splotches of notes, polyrhythmic tricks and inserts of guileless simplicity with total, almost casual command. His most breathtaking solo display of all opened with traditional Cuban octaves and soon turned into a theme-and-variations extravaganza that seemed like an Afro-Cuban response to Rachmaninoff’s Paganini Rhapsody.
But technical feats and classical techniques alone are not the reasons why Valdes, 57, is a great pianist; lots of folks can do that stuff. It’s the way he organizes his ideas, sliding fluidly in and out of wildly diverse passages with bewildering ease while keeping the storyline and the groove moving forward at all times. Unlike most pianistic razzle-dazzlers, Valdes is not afraid of the groove — he embraces it and kicks it along — and he’s not afraid to laugh at himself, frequently deflating erudite flights with humorous, sometimes endearingly cute musical asides.
And even with all of his pianistic firepower, Valdes did not overwhelm his group, for he had the confidence to surround himself with an explosive trio of hard-working interacting players. With the musicians’ mastery of complex Afro-Cuban polyrhythms — drummer Raul Pineda Roque was practically a one-man percussion group himself — and frequent mano-a-mano shootouts, each vamp built with increasing fury and excitement. One can also feel this on Valdes’ galvanic new Blue Note album, “Bele Bele en La Habana” (due in the stores today), a rare modern example of a group achieving ignition in the studio.
Saxophonist (and Columbia artist) David Sanchez drew the unenviable task of following Valdes, and his Latin/funk-tinged quintet didn’t have the ammunition to compete with the Cubans. Sanchez could rouse his band when his post-Coltrane flurries reached a furious peak early on, but otherwise, there was a lot of flash and little coherence. And for the few who stuck it out until past 12:30 a.m., a promised finale with Valdes and Sanchez never materialized.