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Cuban Master Mines Local Talent


January 1, 2004
Copyright ©2004 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved.

You can start to take the virtuosity of Cuban musicians for granted sometimes, especially when they're playing material that binds itself in technique. One example is Chucho Valdes, the pianist who is the dean of Latin jazz. He has never been anything less than impressive when he has played in New York, showing magnificent power, clarity and speed in his playing.

But at times, with his quartets from Havana that have played annually at the Village Vanguard, the high Cuban standards of jazz playing, multiplied by four and spread out over complicated lines, have made the music feel over-arranged and screwed down too tightly. It was too much of a good thing.

Not so with Mr. Valdes's New York-based quartet, which played at the Village Vanguard on Tuesday night for the first time and will be there through Sunday. The early set was one of the best shows I had heard all year.

This quartet is not exclusively Cuban: besides Mr. Valdes and the Cuban drummer Dafnis Prieto, who has been working in New York for four years, it includes the bassist John Benitez, a young New Yorker originally from Puerto Rico, and the percussionist Ray Mantilla, born in the South Bronx and a veteran of the great New York mambo era in the 1950's.

The New York-Puerto Rico axis probably brings a different sense of swing to the quartet, a looser feel than you usually get with the high virtuosity quotient and slightly dry feeling of Mr. Valdes's Cuban quartets. It's also genuinely fresh: before Tuesday night's early set it had been through only two rehearsals. Mr. Valdes imposes a tightness on his bands no matter what; perhaps a little underpreparedness becomes them.

In simply constructed arrangements, Mr. Valdes had an exquisite night. He jumped from one clearly defined area of improvisation to another, getting a metallic ring out of the piano's low register and blazing through passages that made you laugh with their upside-down inventiveness, as when he played tumbling arpeggios in the right hand and strong, accented variations on melody with the left, or brought in the band for the final six bars of a largely solo-piano version of "In a Sentimental Mood."

On bass, Mr. Benitez held down strong lines, either rooted in a Cuban tumbao or a more generalized sense of swing, but he never fell into the style of some of Mr. Valdes's other bass players, who sound like quick-fingered electric bassists transferred to an acoustic instrument. Mr. Mantilla's rhythmic feel on conga drums, rootsy rather than virtuosic, made the music a bit lighter, more spacious. The repertory – most of it called on stage rather than decided beforehand – was about half jazz, half Cuban, including Miles Davis's "Solar," the old Osvaldo Farrés bolero "Tres Palabras" and Mr. Valdes's own ballad "Claudia." Though the set grew ferociously fast here and there, there was a relaxed and jazzlike sense of communication, with more interaction in this band than in previous ones.

And Mr. Prieto worked as a kind of mirror to the bandleader. I'm not sure I've seen a trap-set drummer keep a tempo so steadily, even when Mr. Valdes varied his own speed; he could be machinelike, but working at the highest refinement of taste. When it finally came time for him to solo, he could be nearly as exciting as Mr. Valdes – folding all kinds of accents into a building groove, accenting or slowing the tempo so gradually and precisely that you felt it in your stomach, cresting and leading it back into the group before it all became overwhelming.

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