Chucho Valdés

Jesus "Chucho" Valdés doesn't just play the piano, he overpowers it. Standing six feet five inches, Valdés's mammoth frame towers over the instrument. His presence is so imposing, and his technique so formidable, it's miraculous the piano doesn't just crumble under him. That's probably because the 59-year-old Cuban jazz musician doesn't fight his instrument, he brings out its awesome force.

The son of famed pianist Bebo Valdés, Chucho started playing the instrument at the age of three. When his father defected to the United States in 1960, Valdés remained in Cuba. He played in small combos and assimilated the influences of such monster technicians and stylists as McCoy Tyner, Art Tatum, Bud Powell, Wynton Kelly and Thelonious Monk into his own Afro-Cuban-derived approach. In 1973 he founded the innovative ensemble Irakere. Fusing jazz, Latin and rock influences, the group quickly became legendary in Cuba and scored a couple of Grammys in the United States. An immensely talented ensemble that originally featured trumpeter Arturo Sandoval and reedman Paquito D'Rivera -- both of whom eventually defected to the States -- Irakere at least has enjoyed stability with its music director: Valdés has held the post almost from day one.

A star in his native Cuba, Valdés was mostly an unknown commodity here because of the political tensions bewteen Cuba and the United States. That changed in the mid-'90s, thanks in part to a 1996 collaboration with trumpeter Roy Hargrove. Restrictions on Valdés's U.S. tours loosened, and his appearances at numerous venues across America have been hailed as musical and social triumphs. Valdés's last three albums also have garnered deserved critical acclaim. Between his jazz and Afro-Cuban influences, Valdés brings much to the piano bench. He can sound like the great jazz pianists of the past or perform traditional Latin and Afro-Cuban music or even mix it all up with romanticism that sometimes echoes Franz Liszt. It's an eclectic approach that only a master could pull off.

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