‘Jazz Batá 2’ by Chucho Valdés and ‘The Complete Cuban Jam Sessions’ Reviews
A pair of new releases help tell the tale of two interwoven musical cultures.
Nov. 12, 2018 5:22 p.m. ET
In his landmark book, “Cubano Be, Cubano Bop: One Hundred Years of Jazz in Cuba,” the Cuban musician and musicologist Leonardo Acosta wrote: “Sometimes critics and historians from the United States can be excessively provincial….For this reason many say that Afro-Cuban jazz, mambo, or salsa were created or ‘invented’ in New York.” His book, he wrote, proved that “things don’t tend to be so simple.”
The complex relationship between Cuban culture and American jazz is both embedded within history that continues to be unearthed and expressed through music still spilling forth. Two new releases deepen our understanding. “The Complete Cuban Jam Sessions” (Craft Recordings) reissues as a set (in their entirety and original format) five essential volumes of “Cuban Jam Session” albums recorded in Havana from 1956 to 1964 for the Cuban Panart label—showcasing a big-bang moment for Afro-Cuban jazz. On “Jazz Batá 2” (Mack Avenue Records), recorded five months ago in New Jersey, pianist Chucho Valdés, a towering figure of Cuban music, revisits the format—featuring piano, bass and Afro-Cuban percussion—with which he began his own arc of innovation more than 40 years ago.
The high-ceilinged colonial house in Havana that Ramón Sabat converted into a recording studio while founding Panart, Cuba’s first independent label, is where Pérez Prado recorded his earliest mambos and Nat King Cole made his first Spanish-language tracks. Yet the descargas, as Cubans called their jam sessions, held there made for the label’s most thrilling recordings. According to reissue co-producer Judy Cantor-Navas, no one can cite the precise date of the 1956 all-night session, instigated by pianists Julio Gutiérrez and Pedro “Peruchín” Jústiz, that yielded Volumes 1 and 2. (Master tapes and artwork were brought to the U.S. before the Castro regime seized Panart, but production notes are gone.) Ms. Cantor-Navas’s extensive liner notes, drawing on interviews with participants, document “the flipside of Cuban music’s Golden Age: the informal gatherings that took place away from the colorful stage shows and splendid decadence of Havana’s fabled nightlife.” Along with the first recorded Cuban descargas—a 1952 Mercury session organized by U.S. producer Norman Granz, and led by pianist Bebo Valdés (Chucho’s father)—these Panart sessions document important moments of musical synthesis.
Vols. 1 and 2, crediting Gutiérrez as leader, sound spontaneous but also tightly cohesive. These musicians are having fun, yet also creating an exquisite blend of popular Cuban songs, jazz-based harmonies and Afro-Cuban religious rituals. Subsequent volumes include ones led by Niño Rivera, a bebop-loving master of the tres, a small Cuban guitar, and José Fajardo, a popular flutist and bandleader. The best-known volume is “Cuban Jam Sessions in Miniature: Descargas,” on which bassist Israel “Cachao” Lopéz displays the authority and invention that made him among the 20th century’s most influential musicians, while directing an all-star ensemble. The pulses from Cachao’s bass and the beats passed back and forth by percussionist Tata Güines and drummer Guillermo Barreto on one track, “Descarga Cubana,” must have been mesmerizing in that moment; they’ve since given rise to several musical movements.
One could draw a straight line from the tumbao (rhythmic pattern) of “Descarga Cubana” to the one driving “Chucho’s Mood” on Mr. Valdés’s new “Jazz Batá 2.” Mr. Valdés has never lost sight of the influences of Cachao and of his own father, Bebo, who were childhood friends in Cuba—nor of American musicians that inspired generations of Cubans (he quotes Ellington and Gershwin on “Chucho’s Mood”). There are other lines to be drawn: Oscar Valdés (no relation), who was a 13-year-old bongo player at that first 1956 Panart descarga, played batá, the two-headed drums of Afro-Cuban rituals, on “Jazz Batá,” the 1972 album with which Mr. Valdés introduced the approach he furthers here. (Both musicians were founding members of Irakere, the group with which Chucho achieved a yet grander musical revolution.)
The depth and breadth of Chucho Valdés’s pianism evokes deep roots while encompassing much that the Panart musicians (and his father) couldn’t have imagined, such as the avant-gardist improvisations on “Son XXI.” For all his gifts as a pianist, Mr. Valdés’s primary instruments have always been his bands. Here, his quartet—with bassist Yelsy Heredia, percussionist Yaroldy Abreu Robles, and Dreiser Durruthy Bombalé on batá and vocals—is a wondrous vehicle, elegantly navigating even the surprising twists and turns of Mr. Valdés’s suite-like “Obatalá.” Violinist Regina Carter plays to lovely effect on two tracks, including “100 Años de Bebo,” honoring the centenary of Chucho’s father, who died in 2013.
Cachao, who died in 2008, was also born 100 years ago. Chucho recently turned 77. Grounded in traditions he first soaked up sitting alongside Bebo on the piano bench at Havana’s Tropicana nightclub (not long before those Panart sessions), emboldened by a mastery that now seems offhand and still brimming with subversive musical ideas, Chucho ensures that such legacies are neither lost nor frozen in time.
—Mr. Blumenfeld writes about jazz and Afro-Latin music for the Journal.