Our man in Havana’s inspiring jazz rocked the house

No one was exactly sure how Chucho Valdés’ concert would pan out at the Royal Opera House Muscat on Sunday. For a start, the quintet had become a quartet, so no horns. With a constantly evolving career which spanned 50 years – he is now a sprightly 77 year old – the Cuban pianist Chucho Valdés plays in various styles and genres, any one of which he can dive into at the click of a drumstick.
The Chucho Valdés Jazz Batá Quartet comprised the great man himself on Steinway Grand with the superb 47 year old Double Bass player from Puerto Rico, Ramon Vazquez, who had only joined the group three days before the show – and what an impact his talent in classic jazz harmony had in the performance.
There were two percussionists; Yaroldy Abreu Robles on an array of Congas – and other toys, and the astounding Dreiser Durruthy Bombalé on Batá, vocals, African dance and — well, more of that later.
The Batá are the sacred, hour-glass shaped drums used in the ritual music of the Yoruba religion, or Santeria. They inspired Chucho’s 2018 project, ‘Jazz Batá 2’ in which he revisited an idea first conceived in 1972: a jazz piano trio featuring batá drums instead of the conventional kit.
The performance started on time with the quartet entering unceremoniously and diving straight into a piano solo intro from Valdés. His amazing technique in a free improvisatory jazz style was immediately apparent, and gradually the other members of the band joined in.
It took most people a couple of numbers to settle into Chucho’s musical language and begin to appreciate his versatility. Sadly it also took 15 minutes for all the audience to arrive and be shown by the obliging ushers to their (front row) seats. People coming in after the performance has started IS distracting for those who arrive on time.
‘Obalatá’ was suddenly interrupted by the multi-talented Bombalé with some out-of-tune African vocals across the Cuban sound. There was a lovely bass and piano duo in a contemporary jazz style, with all the joy of Latin rhythms from the two non-stop percussionists on Congas and Batá at full pelt. Later, a beautiful double bass solo from the talented Vazquez was received in pin-drop silence, followed by ecstatic applause and yelps.
Another of Chucho’s worlds was a repeating modal piano riff, reminiscent of Ellington’s ‘Caravan’ — but distinctly in his own 20th century atonal language. Bombalé interjected with some scat-like vocals, ‘BaBaDu’, bringing the lengthy first number to an end.
Chucho Valdes spoke to the audience, introducing the band and thanking ROHM for inviting them to such a beautiful, wonderful Oman.
“Abdel” was not recorded and not on the programme, but was another modal chordal composition using uneven, angular rhythms with lots of conga beats. It had some very fast virtuoso technical playing from Valdés in a modern jazz style showing his incredible independence of the hands – and a quote from Albeniz’ ‘Asturias’ – mixed with plenty of Spanish rhythms, and later vocals in Spanish. To be fair, an Opera House isn’t really the ideal place to listen to jazz music — but then thanks to ROHM they were performing in Muscat. A brilliant drum solo from Robles brought a spontaneous cheer from the audience, and was followed by a more tonal piano melody with lovely parallel added-chords. They spun into whole-tone scalic ripples across complex interlocking percussion rhythms.
The third piece was his 1973, ‘Neurosis’, and featured Valdés’ angular atonality in an Abdullah Ibrahim, South African Gospel style, using percussive chords with an ornamented melodic improvisation, all bathed in yellow light. It included another fine bass solo from Ramon and concluded with a more mellow vocal line, ‘Bahia’.
Each and every number finished cleanly with a two chord jazz-cadence or cliché, making the performance well choreographed and rehearsed, including ending at exactly 80 minutes as per the programme!
The most lyrical and well received song of the evening was, ‘100 años de Bebo’ in red light and dedicated to Valdés’ father. It comprised a big Spanish-Cuban theme, showing some classical dexterity and harmonised so beautifully. It was tonal, tuneful and very accessible to all, gradually building up to an impressive conclusion.
They had won the audience and everyone relaxed. The penultimate piece was in standard jazz style, juxtaposed with some crashing atonal discords. Bombalé began to dance in exaggerated tribal gestures and encouraged the audience to clap along. They loved that!
Another lush ballad, Valdés’ 2003, ‘Los Güiros’, had superb jazz chords over a sublime bass solo, then something bizarre occurred: the two percussionists took gourd-guiros and played an unprecedented duet, dancing and jiggling. The audience loved that too.
Finally, in ‘Afro-Funk’, Ramon Vazquez changed to electric bass and Bombalé turned to African call-and-response games with the audience, which they adored, and the habitual two-beat out-of-time clapping. The gourd was thrown in the air by Robles — and caught bang in time on the last chord. Now that is band synchronisation — and a great note to end on.