Somebody better check the roof at the the Gaillard Center. A giant of a man left his mark. Pianist Chucho Valdés and his mighty quartet executed flawlessly, bringing a welcomed vitality to this year’s Spoleto jazz series for its pinnacle jazz performance.
The hall’s energy was palpable as the Cuban-born, Grammy Award-winning bandleader took to the stage, sporting his backwards-facing, classic Kangol cap. Valdés took his seat at a piano that seemed dwarfed by his presence.
Before anyone could blink, two hours had passed. Valdes’s intoxicating set was a contemporary amalgamation of genres, yielding a visceral journey through “American” music. The free-flowing performance felt more like a two-hour dance, with recognizable melodies and riffs from standard jazz, blues, gospel and classical repertoire, marvelously coalescing with the ensemble’s sophisticated harmonies and rhythm, all of it rooted in the Latin tradition, especially Afro-Cuban.
Combined, the quartet was a ceremonious polyrhythmic force that made way for breathtaking moments of individual luster. While Valdés was unmistakably the captain of this musical vessel, bassist Yelsy Heredia was second in command. His physical energy, rhythmic sensibility, and vocal expression was enthralling. Percussionist Yaroldy Abreu Robles and drummer Dafnis Prieto made for a well-oiled machine with their precision, musicality and expansive use of battery.
Valdés closed his set with a medley of standards, including “My Foolish Heart,” “Waltz for Debby,” “Take the ‘A’ Train” and a handful of others, masterfully interwoven. Before he had lifted his hands from the keys, roars and whistles filled the air. “Otra! Otra!,” the noticeable Latino contingent proclaimed, hinting at an encore. Valdés obliged, returning to the stage for a spirited arrangement of Puerto Rican composer Rafael Hernández Marín’s “El cumbanchero.”
Valdés let the music speak. There was no barrier, no wall, no misinterpretation, no miscommunication. Just music that left a capacity crowd awestruck and markedly more alive.
Maestro Chucho Valdés is what makes America great. His improvisation is a culminating celebration of the shared experience of the Americas, a unifying exemplar of human survival, exchange, migration and evolution. Whether performing with Irakere, solo, or as part of his various ensembles, throughout his illustrious career his commitment to forging connections makes him a legend.
There are giants among us. Valdés is one of them. ¡Gracias, Chucho!
Reviewer Leah Suarez is a musician in Charleston.