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Chucho Valdés is the elder statesman of Cuban music.
A piano virtuoso, he is also one of Cuba’s most famous bandleaders, composers, and arrangers. Described by the New York Times as a “sly balance of statesmanlike deliberation and youthful gusto,” he is probably best known for founding the famous Latin jazz band Irakere in 1972 and for making music a unifying factor between Cuba and the United States.
Valdés, who turned 81 this year, has a career spanning 60 years. He was born in Quivicán, Cuba, in 1941. His father, Bebo, was Cuban musical royalty. A house pianist in the famous Tropicana club, Bebo exposed a young Chucho to jazz icons such as Nat King Cole and Sarah Vaughan.
Valdés began working in his teens, already a prodigy and developed a style all his own – orchestral and rhythmic. He went on to record over eighty CDs and performed with musicians such as Herbie Hancock, Dizzy Gillespie, Wynton Marsalis, and Chick Corea.
Valdés’ reputation as one of the greatest living Cuban jazz pianists also earned him appearances on the great stages of music, including Carnegie Hall, The Kennedy Center, and The Hollywood Bowl.
It was Bruce Lundvall, a record executive, who signed the group Irakere to Columbia Records in the 1970s and brought Valdés to the attention of the US public. Valdés has said that he owes his career to Lundvall.
Irakere is one of Cuba’s most influential bands. It created a sound that mixed jazz, European music, rock, and funk with Cuban, Afro-Cuban and electronic influences.
Many of the greatest Cuban musicians played in the band: Valdés, Paquito D’Rivera, Arturo Sandoval, Carlos Averhoff, Jorge Varona, Germán Velazco, Enrique Plá, Carlos Emilio Morales, Carlos del Puerto, and Jorge Alfonso.
One of the most famous Irakere songs was Bacalao con Pan – music that married jazz with ancestral Cuban rhythms.
It was a delicate time in the relationship between Washington and Havana. “There was a huge gulf,” Valdés said in an interview. “The music was a very important bridge. It also went to prove that we musicians are above all the politics.”
Valdes has won seven Grammys and four Latin Grammys and GRAMMY® and received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Latin Academy of Recording Arts & Science in 2020. He was also inducted into the Latin Songwriters Hall of Fame.
His most recent project on record, Jazz Batá 2, won a Latin Grammy as Best Latin Jazz album and was selected as one of Billboard magazine’s list of The 50 Best Latin Albums of the Decade.
The beauty is he is still going strong. And Chucho Valdés is still playing the music that he hopes will unite the United States and Cuba, two nations that have been separated due to ossified Cold War politics for too long.
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