Briyumba Palo Congo (Religion of the Congo), the latest CD from the 57 year-old world-renowned pianist, composer, bandleader and educator Jesus "Chucho" Valdés is a new chapter in his ever-evolving explorations of the African, Spanish and U.S. influences in Afro-Cuban Latin jazz. His third Blue Note release also reveals the impact that American pianists have had on his playing. "The Cuban phrasing is syncopated and you use more eighth notes. It's used in jazz also," Valdés says. "My playing has changed in how I manage with the musical language of jazz, the phrasing. McCoy Tyner and Bill Evans are the biggest influences on me." Like McCoy Tyner, Valdés can evoke thunder-like chords punctuated by lighting-fast arpeggios and like Bill Evans, he can make the keyboard sing with a rainbow of impressionistic harmonic and melodic colors.
Produced by musicologist René López, who produced Valdés' first two Blue Note recordings, Belé Belé en la Habana -- which earned Valdés a Grammy nomination for "Best Latin Jazz Performance" and Yemayá, featuring Valdés' group Irakere -- Briyumba Palo Congo teams the pianist with conguero Roberto Vizcaíno Guillot, trap drummer Raúl Piñeda and bassist Francisco Rubio. The title cut, featuring Valdes' sister, Mayra Caridad Valdés, is an Afro-Cuban celebration of Briyumba and Palo: two branches of the central African religion that is still practiced in Cuba today. "It's a song, a prayer to the fundamental aspects of the Congo religion," Valdés notes. "I wanted to pay homage to the religion of the Congo people." "Pónle la Clave," which translates as "Put the Time on It," is similar to the Afro-American saying of "stay on the one (the beat)," and is powered by Valdés' intricate rhythmic superimpositions on the clave: the five-note of all Cuban music, while the 6/8 tinged "El Rumbón," and the ballad "Bolero" are marked by his unmatched prowess in swingin' Afro-Cuban style.
Valdés' innovative gift for combining Cuban, Caribbean and American musical forms also extends to his arranging, as evidenced by his festive, piano/percussive, conga-driven take on "Caravan," the Duke Ellington classic written in collaboration with the band's Puerto Rican composer/trombonist Juan Tízol and Irving Mills. Deeply in love with the island's music the great George Gershwin composed "Cuban Overture" in 1934. Today, Valdés reciprocates with his bolero take on Gershwin's "Embraceable You" and his danceable danzon/cha-cha rendition of "Rhapsody in Blue."
The gems on this musical offering are but the latest from the seemingly inexhaustible treasure chest of Chucho Valdés' musical genius. In 1944, Chucho's father "Bebo" Valdés, the legendary pianist/composer and musical director of the Havana-based Tropicana casino, gave his son his first piano lesson when he was three and took him to the casino, where he saw his dad work with some of the greatest figures in American music, including Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Brown, Milt Jackson, Buddy Rich, Sarah Vaughan, and Nat King Cole, whose album, Cole en Español was arranged by Bebo.
Along with his classical studies by other well-respected teachers including Zenaida Romeu and Rosario Franco, Valdés worked with pianist/composer Ernesto Lecuona and vocalist Beny Moré. He formed his first jazz trio at the age of 16, recorded two albums for RCA Victor at age 18, worked in the Elio Reve Orquesta from 1965 to 1967 and seven years later founded the Orquesta de Música Moderna with fellow Orquesta bandmembers guitarist Carlos Emilio and saxophonist/clarinetist Paquito D'Rivera. They eventually formed the pioneering ensemble, Irakere, named for an West African word which means "equatorialforest."
Their music included Cuban, rock, funk, classical and jazz stylings and in 1978 they were the first post-embargo Cuban group to be signed to an American label. Their debut LP on Columbia, released that same year, earned them a Grammy and another recording Misa Negra (Black Mass) was also critically acclaimed. D'Rivera and trumpeter Arturo Sandoval would emerge and become stars in the U.S and the group, like Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, would continue to recruit the best Cuban talent.
Because of the embargo, American audiences didn't see much of Valdés. That all changed in 1996, when trumpeter Roy Hargrove was invited to Valdés' Havana Jazz Festival. In return, Hargrove brought Valdés' to the States as a guest soloist in his band and as a guest educator. The result of that fruitful union was Hargrove's masterpiece CD, Crisol, which featured Valdés and other Latin jazz luminaries. Valdés later performed to a sold-out audience at the Jazz at Lincoln Center and signed with EMI/Canada and released Belé Belé en la Habana and Yemayá.
Since then, jazz lovers in the United States have been able to witness Chucho Valdés, thanks to his concerts, club dates, performance workshops, and guest appearances. On this recording, Briyumba Palo Congo, and throughout his exceptional career, Valdés, with his encyclopedic knowledge of American jazz, reminds us just how similar our African-derived musical heritages are, in his role as Cuba's greatest musical ambassador. "We Cuban piano players are always thinking of the rhythm base. We're always thinking of Cuba when we play piano."