Chucho Valdes & the Afro-Cuban Messengers

Concert Hall, June 12valdes-620x349

Had Cuba never been invented the world’s stock of brilliant improvising pianists would substantially shrink. Following the likes of Omar Sosa and Roberto Fonseca through Sydney came Chucho Valdes, among the most influential of all.

Where many older jazz leaders who surround themselves with younger players can seem like big fish in ponds of minnows, Valdes has assembled a band (bass, drums and two percussion) of equals to goad and stimulate him.

Congadanza saw his piano having to scythe through thickets of percussion – not of the mild, subservient variety, but rampant foregrounds of energy. But scythe it did with razor-sharp ideas: little labyrinths of melody played by hands that seemed the length of other people’s feet. True to its name the piece also included a conga solo from Yaroldy Abreu Robles of startling virtuosity, potency and musicality.

Julian, ostensibly a rock ballad, was the first of several pieces to feature the vigorous bass playing of Angel Gaston Joya Perellada, although his solos were sadly compromised by muddy bottom-end sound. (The inexplicable decision not to install the Concert Hall’s fabric false-ceiling above the stage was probably partly to blame.) The compensation was Rodney Barreto’s electrifying and extraordinarily inventive drum solo within a seemingly antithetical context.

Yansa featured Dreiser Durruthy Bombale on vocals and his intensely melodic bata drums, while Valdes built the groove to tsunamic heights. The pianist exposed a more romantic side in ravishing playing on Pilar, where Perellada exquisitely bowed the melody before all but stealing the night – had the sound been kinder to him – with his ensuing pizzicato solo.

Barreto exploded into the foreground again on Las Dos Caras, and Valdes explored the improbably funky and bluesy implications on Rimsky-Korsakov’s work with a reinvention of Scheherezade. By then it barely raised an eyebrow that Bombale was also a thrilling dancer, or that this was an audience that could clap in time. Mr Valdes seems to draw out the best in everyone.