The Prince of Cuban Jazz: Jazz pianist Chuchito Valdés plays Mandel Hall

“It comes naturally,” says Chuchito Valdés, the Cuban jazz pianist performing this Saturday at Mandel Hall, about writing music. “The music flows through my veins.” For an artist born into a family of the greats, the claim is not hard to believe. Chuchito grew up with not one, but two seven-time Grammy winners: his father, Bebo, and grandfather, Chucho Valdés. Together, the three Valdés performers make up the single most famous family in Cuban jazz, if not Cuban music altogether.

“It’s a very beautiful experience, but it hasn’t pressured me to follow in anybody’s footsteps,” he said in a phone interview from Miami, where he has spent a good amount of his time lately. With a home in Mexico, Valdés can easily travel in and out of the United States without worrying about the shaky political relationship between America and Cuba that forbids his countrymen from entering the U.S. and would hinder his performance career. This freedom allows Valdés to visit Chicago and Miami frequently, playing shows and spending time in recording studios. He is currently finishing up two albums, a record of piano solos and a new Latin jazz CD, both expected to be released in the next two months.

His trip to Chicago this weekend will bring him back again to a city where he lived for three years and reconnect him with band members who live in the area. His show in Mandel Hall, the kick-off of this year’s University of Chicago Presents series, will feature Valdes and those bandmates on such instruments as bass, conga, piano, batá (a double-headed drum), percussion, and various other instruments common to Latin jazz.

“To be one hundred percent honest with you, people go crazy at the concerts,” Valdés said. He enjoys performing for students who may not be familiar with his style of music, because he feels like he is contributing to their education. In fact, the way he speaks is very much like a good teacher, approaching conversation as a chance to teach about his life and the music he knows so well. “In the ’50s there were a lot of relations between Cuban and American jazz, but now Cuban jazz introduces congas, Afro-Cuban religion and rhythm, and that’s the difference. It’s very religious,” he explains.

He approaches the keyboard with equal passion, becoming so absorbed in his music that it seems like he is undergoing a religious experience. Indeed, his involvement with music has been intimate and lifelong. He started studying classical piano in Cuba when he was 7. “Little by little, I elevated myself,” he says. He didn’t dabble in Latin jazz until he turned 17, and from then on it was all a whirlwind. He joined the renowned Cuban jazz group Irakere, with whom his father won one of his Grammy awards.

With only two nominations for Latin Grammys under his belt, Valdés isn’t quite the international superstar his father and grandfather were, but he is well on his way. He has played with Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner, and is well known in Cuban communities around the U.S. But he is humble about it all, saying his career has had no crowning achievements. After thinking about it for a minute, he says, “My dream would be, I would like to perform the Concerto No. 2 of Rachmaninoff for Piano.” Talk about someone who loves what he does.
Mandel Hall, 1131 E. 57th St. October 23. Friday, 7:30-9:30pm. (773)702-8086. $25/$10 for UofC students. music.uchicago.edu

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