Sunday, October 15, 2006
October 13, 2006
Listening With: Bebo Valdés
Far From Cuba, but Not From His Roots
By BEN RATLIFF
THE Cuban pianist Bebo Valdés, who will receive a proper welcome from Jazz at Lincoln Center this weekend, lives here, just outside Stockholm, with his wife, Rose Marie, in a small ground-floor apartment. Its shelves and walls serve as a kind of index to his remarkable life.
There are books of sheet music by Rachmaninoff and Chopin; a photo of him in a tuxedo, tall and commanding, on the cover of “Cha Cha Cha & Mambo for Small Dance Bands,” a book he wrote and published in Havana in the 1950’s, aiming at the English-language market; paintings by Haitian artists; Joseph Schillinger’s “System of Musical Composition,” the dense theoretical books beloved by intellectual musicians of the 1940’s and 50’s that break down melody, harmony and rhythm into mathematic logic. There is, incongruously, a shelf of pop-music lead-sheet books like “100 of the Greatest Easy Listening Hits,” all well thumbed. Then there are some recent awards, including several Grammys, and a ceremonial key to the city of Miami.
To explain all this requires going back a bit. Slavery officially ended in Cuba in 1886. Ramon Valdés, universally known as Bebo, was born in 1918. His mother came from a Spanish family, and his paternal grandfather was a slave. Afro-Cuban jazz is the ultimate mixture of African, European and New World culture. It is not at all uncommon for a Latin jazz group now to put the batá, the two-headed drum of Yoruban religious music, alongside elements of European harmony and American swing. But hand drums were effectively prohibited in Cuba in the early 20th century, and Mr. Valdés remembers a time when the batá was never, ever used in dance music. He reckons he was the first to do so, in 1952.
He graduated from the Conservatorio Municipal in Havana. “It was the poor man’s conservatory, and the best,” he insists. A gifted arranger, he worked with his hero, Ernesto Lecuona — probably the greatest Cuban composer of the 20th century — after graduating in the mid-40’s.
Mr. Valdés was in the inner circle of musicians who developed the mambo, along with the multi-instrumentalist Orestes Lopez and his brother, the bassist Israel (Cachao) Lopez. For much of the 1950’s, during the height of the mambo’s popularity, Mr. Valdés was the pianist of the house orchestra at the Tropicana, the biggest nightclub in Havana, and the club’s musical adviser. He played with, or arranged for, most of Cuba’s star singers and musicians, including Beny More (who sang with the orchestra at Tropicana), Miguelito Valdés, Pío Leyva and Chano Pozo. When Nat King Cole, a habitué of the Tropicana, came to Havana to record his Spanish-language record “Cole Español,” Mr. Valdés played piano and arranged the album. He was the epicenter of a thriving world.
He had five children in Cuba, including Chucho Valdés, who has since become one of the greatest pianists in the world. In 1960, after the revolution, the senior Mr. Valdés fled Cuba — first to Mexico, where he worked in television and in the recording studios, and then to Spain. In Stockholm, on a European tour with a group called Lecuona’s Cuban Boys, he met and fell in love with Rose Marie Pehrson. He was 44, and she was 18.
It was 1963. He wanted to relocate to New York, but, as a black man with a white wife, he was warned by friends against moving to the United States. For a while he bided his time: he remembers being of the opinion that Castro’s regime would not last much longer.
He has never returned to Cuba. He stayed in Stockholm, starting a new family and playing piano in hotel lounges for more than 30 years. (Hence the easy-listening songbooks.) He has a working musician’s pride, and no regrets.
His reputation flourished again at a point in his life when most musicians are busy resisting decline. In 1994, at the behest of the Cuban jazz saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera, he recorded “Bebo Rides Again,” his first album in three decades. It was to be a loose, jam-session record, but Mr. Valdés insisted on structure. He arranged nine of his own songs for a nonet in two days.
In 2000 he took part in “Calle 54,” Fernando Trueba’s documentary film about Latin jazz. Subsequently Mr. Trueba formed a record label with the film and music historian Nat Chediak and made a series of recordings involving Mr. Valdés. One of them, “Lágrimas Negras,” an album of boleros by Mr. Valdés and the flamenco singer Diego El Cigala, sold nearly a million copies, mostly in Europe. In Madrid and Barcelona particularly, crowds have started to applaud him on the street and in restaurants. He has done better financially in his 80’s than at any other time in his life.
He has released three more albums since “Lágrimas Negras,” including “Bebo de Cuba,” a double disc that won a Grammy and a Latin Grammy last year. It includes his “Suite Cubana,” which will be performed tonight and tomorrow at Rose Theater with Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra.
Mr. Valdés turned 88 on Monday. He and Rose Marie live not far from their two Swedish-born sons, Rickard and Raymond.
He is cheerful, and extremely punctual. He takes small steps and moves quickly, especially toward his piano. He claims he is never tired. (“And I’m not bragging,” he said.) He practices scales and arpeggios for 30 minutes daily and prefers to eat one meal, around lunchtime. He talks about rhythm analytically and does not dance well; he seems to take a kind of pride in this. He does not drink alcohol but takes in prodigious amounts of American coffee.
Mr. Valdés spoke in Spanish, with a translator, with little sprays of English. His memory for names and dates is sharp, and for a journalist’s visit, he prepared a precise list of music to listen to, each piece keyed to particular fascinations.
The first piece was by his hero, Ernesto Lecuona. We heard Lecuona himself play his short piece “La Paloma,” which incorporates late-Romantic rhapsodies and elegant dance rhythms in flexible tempo.
“I first heard of Lecuona when I was in conservatory, in 1934,” Mr. Valdés said. Was his music taught in conservatories then? “Oh, no, no,” he said, surprised by the idea. “Only classical. Everything we learned in conservatory was before Cervantes.”
He was speaking of Ignacio Cervantes, the Cuban composer who died in 1905. A conversation with Mr. Valdés goes this way. You are immersed in about 150 years of Cuban music, stretching from African- derived abakuá chants to contradanzas to boleros to mambo and modern Latin jazz. At the mention of Cervantes’s name, Mr. Valdés sits at the piano and performs all of Cervantes’s short, stately “Danza No. 1.”
“He was Lecuona’s favorite,” he remembered. “You couldn’t criticize Cervantes around him. He did wonderful things, but rhythmically, he copied Saumell.” (The reference was to Manuel Saumell Robredo, considered the father of Cuban contradanza.) He played part of “Danza No. 1” again, emphasizing the syncopated five-note pattern called the cinquillo, which he says is what makes the contradanza particularly Cuban.
He got back to the Lecuona. “He’s doing three things at the same time. The left hand plays the rhythm, the accompaniment, and the right hand the melody. On top of that there’s a lot of improvising.”
Mr. Valdés revered Lecuona for the prodigious keyboard talents lying underneath his gifts as a composer: he was performing at the age of 5.
“He was a great person, Ernesto, and a great musician. When he won a piano competition in Paris, in 1928, they asked him to play something of his own, and he played ‘La Comparsa.’ The ovation was enormous. With the money he made from winning the competition, he bought himself a farm, which he called La Comparsa. I think maybe it’s spiritual. When we were filming ‘Calle 54,’ I didn’t know what to play. So I played ‘La Comparsa,’ and for a lot of people, it’s their favorite part of the movie.”
We moved on to Art Tatum. “My favorite pianist,” he boomed. “He and Bill Evans.” Unstoppable, he played Evans’s “Waltz for Debby,” complete with a full chorus of rigorous improvisation. “I love to improvise,” he said.
We listened to Tatum playing “Without a Song,” solo, from the 1955 recordings made at a private party in Beverly Hills. It is fully animated, never staying in one rhythm, with tremendous, crashing, full-keyboard runs — always through appropriate chord changes — functioning as steppingstones. “It’s virtuosic in technique — totally classical, with modern harmony,” he said. “He was the first pianist I ever heard playing modern harmonies and playing them with heart.”
Tatum, he added, “was always improvising. He would change time signatures, put one harmony on top of another. I try to imitate him at times, but who am I?”
When Mr. Valdés was solidifying his reputation in Havana, several of his compatriots were making waves in New York. (Mr. Valdés never spent time there: offered a visa for only 29 days in the 40’s, he decided against such a short stay.) In 1947 Dizzy Gillespie’s big band was joined by the conga player Chano Pozo, who drilled the band in how to play the tumbao, the conjunction of rhythm-section lines in Cuban music. The band’s great document of the period is the song “Manteca,” which became a hit in the United States.
Mr. Valdés maintains that Gillespie’s American band played the Cuban rhythms perfectly. He put the track on. “What I hear most is the conga, and the changes in the bass. And the boom-bah, boom-bah,” he sang, imitating the baritone saxophone.
“That’s all the tumbao of mambo,” he said. “It’s completely the mambo style of Cachao.” Halfway through, the song lifts out of Cuban rhythm into jazz swing, with more arranged harmony, and he savored the shift.
Right after this, he put on a Frank Sinatra track from 1960, “Nice ’n’ Easy,” arranged by Nelson Riddle. It has the midtempo bounce of Sinatra records at the time, a rhythmic feeling that thrills Mr. Valdés. “Nobody can play music like that except in America, that kind of swing, that time,” he said. “It’s impeccable. The most difficult thing in the world is to play slowly and keep time. When I listen to this, I see American black people dancing.”
“Even though I’m Cuban, I’m really an American arranger,” he reflected. “Because the way I write has as much to do with American music as it does with Cuban music. And at the same time it has to do with the fugue.” (An example of his fugue writing comes in the middle of “Devoción,” a beguiling part of his “Suite Cubana.”)
It was pointed out to him that fugues have little to do with Cuban or American music. “Yes, but I do it anyway,” he said. “Why shouldn’t I, if I know how?”
He brought out the sheet music to Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, to use as a reference as we listened to it. “I was studying composition and harmony when I heard this performed by the Havana Symphony, in the 40’s,” he said.
What he wanted to show, in the third movement of the piece, was how the composer builds a beautiful, fragile melody, then protects it as the orchestra swells around it. “When I hear the music build to a crescendo, I feel like crying,” he said.
I asked if he was able to use this device in his own arranging. “Whenever I can get away with it,” he thundered. He put on “Copla No. 4,” the guajira section of his “Suite Cubana,” to demonstrate. It has the same effect: big, brass-heavy crescendos, building in intensifying shades and colors around the melody.
“When you know classical music, you can do what you want to do,” Mr. Valdés said, and then he recited an old maxim to indicate that he had succeeded on his own terms: “Es mejor ser la cabeza de un perro que la cola de un tiburón.” It’s better to be the head of a dog than the tail of a shark.