By Paul Freeman [Feb. 2012 Interview]

The music of Chucho Valdes draws from global influences and has demonstrated a strong international appeal.

Reached by phone in Cuba, Valdes said, through a translator, “We’ve been very fortunate to have very good receptions from audiences in all parts of the world. But the U.S. is special, because the audience understands the fusion I’m bringing, Afro-Cuban with jazz.”

He has triumphed at such prestigious venues as Carnegie Hall, The Kennedy Center and the Hollywood Bowl. He’s currently performing again in the U.S., concluding his tour with a date in San Francisco at the Herbst Theatre, Feb. 20.

Chucho Valdes (born Jesus Dionisio Valdes in Quivican, Cuba, 1941) is a pianist, bandleader, composer and arranger. In 1972 he founded Irakere, one of Cuba's most acclaimed Latin jazz bands.

His works have drawn from many sources, including hard bop, swing and European classical, as well as Latin and African music. He has collaborated with such fellow legends as Herbie Hancock, Dizzy Gillespie, Wynton Marsalis and Chick Corea.

Valdes has won multiple Grammy awards, including one in 2011 for his album, “Chucho's Steps,” introducing his fiercely energetic new band Afro-Cuban Messengers.

I had the concept for many years and began working on it about seven years ago by changing the Afro-Cuban rhythms and now it’s ready, with this group and the album,” Valdes said.

“This mix has existed since the 1940s. However, the style we’re performing is more contemporary and modern. That’s the journey that we’re embarking on with the audience.”

The band’s concerts allow much room for spontaneity. “A percentage of the music is written and structured. The percussion effects are structured. But everything else is improvised. And every time, it’s performed differently.”

His father is Bebo Valdes, the renowned Cuban pianist and former director of Havana's famous Tropicana night club band.

“I was born to be a musician. I started playing at three years old. And more so, I feel that I was born to be a jazz artist,” said Valdes, who dazzles audiences with his speed and dexterity on the piano keyboard.

“I learned from my father the different musical styles. I learned most of the technique from studying at classical schools. But from my father, I learned the conceptual aspects and how to mix different styles through the arrangements.”

His own son, Chuchito, is following in his footsteps. “The advice I give my son is to find his own personality and style as a musician, to be himself. It’s good that he has his influence from me, as I had my influence from my father, but from there, he has to branch out. It isn’t good for my son - or anybody - to be a copycat.”

Valdes, who has recorded over 80 albums, does enjoy passing on the knowledge he has accumulated over the decades. He has taught at Instituto Superior de Arte in Havana, as well as universities all over the world.

“The clinics I conduct are very special to me. It’s an opportunity for me to share my experience and advice with young students who are eager to learn.”

He continues to grow, musically. “The first challenge for me, in my career, was following my own path, which I accomplished with the group Irakere. Now I welcome new challenges with Afro-Cuban Messengers.

“I feel that there’s more emotion in what I’m doing now. There’s more types of arrangements and styles, which is important to a musician. I feel that I’ve matured as a musician and hope to continue to do so.

“I still have many goals. I have many plans, and ideas, and new concepts to explore. And I welcome ideas from the other musicians in the group. New ideas are what keeps it interesting and exciting and contemporary.”

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