Chucho Valdés

Winner of seven Grammys and four Latin Grammys, Cuban pianist, composer and arranger Chucho Valdés is the most influential figure in modern Afro-Cuban jazz. In a rich career spanning 60 years, Valdés has pushed boundaries in pursuit of new expressions in Afro-Cuban music. His influence in the genre is immeasurable, with his work establishing the standard by which younger generations try to model their own.

His musical education includes formal studies and countless nights on the best stages in Cuba as the pianist with his father, Bebo Valdés, and his orchestra Sabor de Cuba, and with the seminal Orquesta Cubana de Música Moderna. The younger Valdés is perhaps best known as the founder, pianist and main composer of and arranger for Irakere, the landmark Cuban ensemble that he led Irakere for more than 30 years. Since 2005, he has focused on his own career, highlighting his work as a pianist and leading small ensembles such as the Afro-Cuban Messengers, Jazz Batá and his acclaimed quartet.

Valdés, who celebrated his 80th birthday in 2021, maintains a technique and creative output that are as prodigious as ever. He is a recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Latin Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, has been inducted into the Latin Songwriters Hall of Fame and received a DC Jazz Festival Lifetime Achievement Award, with his name added to an illustrious list that includes Kenny Barron, James Moody, Ellis Marsalis, George Wein and Dave Brubeck.

Last season, Valdés presented La Creación (The Creation), his work for big band, Afro-Cuban percussion and vocals. A suite in four movements, La Creación explores the story of creation according to the Afro-Cuban religion known as Santería. The work draws on a sonic palette featuring elements of Santería ritual music, African music, the blues and what he describes as “an atmosphere in the style of Miles Davis’ ‘Bitches Brew.’ ”

It also serves as a summation of an extraordinary career. “This work represents the accumulation of all my experiences and everything I’ve learned in music,” Valdés said. “This is a moment of full maturity, personally and musically.” La Creación also represents a return to big-band sonorities, but “with the experience of the road traveled,” he said. “I felt I could return to this format now and with my own language, take it to a higher level than I had reached.”

Thematically, in La Creación, Valdés delves into concerns he has explored in works such as La Misa Negra, an early milestone in his career, and Canto a Dios, a more recent composition in which he fused jazz with symphonic music. “This work is very significant to me,” Valdés said. “I think it’s my masterpiece — so far.”

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