Cuban pianist-composer-bandleader Chucho Valdés singles out jazz great Dizzy Gillespie as one of his earliest influences. When he started out in the early ’60s, “I was doing a mix of Afro-Cuban and bebop,“ he recalled. “It was like an African Dizzy Gillespie. Dizzy was a real hero for me.”
In 1977, he performed with Gillespie in Cuba in 1977. “It was one of the most important moments of my life,” he said in a recent interview with grammy.com. “I felt very motivated by him. He was very inspirational. He was one of the creators of the language of bebop, a true pioneer. He influenced a lot of generations, and for me, it was because of his musical vocabulary.”
As a bandleader, Valdés directed a trio at first. “It was very exciting,” he said. “I felt the things the way I heard them on records. Then I upgraded from a trio and added a wind section. I wrote all the pieces, and it was exciting for me to listen to what I had written. To this day, I love to do it, and I’m still doing it.
A regular visitor to Orchestra Hall, Valdés returns for an SCP Jazz concert with Joe Lovano and Dianne Reeves on May 17.
Expect to hear some of his signature works steeped in Latin jazz. As for what makes Cuban music genuinely Cuban, he said, “It is very rich in rhythms, and any of them can be adapted to jazz. The most important part of Cuban music is the rhythm. It can be mixed even with symphonic music. There’s symphonic bands that use Cuban percussion instruments, and in jazz a lot.
“What [Cuban percussionist-composer] Chano Pozo did with Dizzy, he added Afro-Cuban instruments to a big band, and that was the beginning of Afro-Cuban jazz.”
Valdés’ latest release is “I Missed You Too!” (2022, Sunnyside) with fellow Latin jazz legend (and longtime friend and colleague) Paquito D’Rivera and the Reunion Sextet, ranging from straight-ahead jazz to classical (“Mozart a la Cubana”) to tango (the standard “El día que me quieras”).