Clave Strikes 12

Virtuoso rings in new year with Cuban-American blend

Rice and beans among the New Year’s Eve fare at the Village Vanguard? Why not, considering that the new was rung in by Cuban piano virtuoso Chucho Valdés? On the only night of the year the Vanguard serves food, Valdés’s presence marked more than a menu substitution.

For 11 years running, clarinetist Michael White’s New Orleans-based band summoned the spirit of jazz’s American birthplace here at year’s end. But owner Lorraine Gordon’s break with tradition isn’t radical: As cultural institutions have focused attention on Latin jazz’s story—witness the Smithsonian Institution’s recent exhibition, or Lincoln Center’s new Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra—Valdés has become a powerful symbol of roots and reach.

Valdés, though, has long suffered the vicissitudes of U.S.-Cuba cultural policy. His 1998 Vanguard debut was delayed by a day due to visa problems. And last year, amid anti-terrorism upgrades and a tightening of America’s Cuba policy, he was forced to cancel a week’s run at the club. This time, precautions were taken. Fearing travel complications for his Havana-based bandmates, Valdés convened a quartet of New York players: young Cuban-born drummer Dafnis Prieto; Puerto Rican-born bassist John Benitez; and Ray Mantilla, a Bronx-bred percussionist whose credits date to New York’s salsa heyday.

The benefits went beyond practicality. The sheer speed and dexterity with which Valdés blends American and Cuban idioms can mystify. But with his regular quartet these strands of influence can get too tightly woven.

During Tuesday’s opening set, when Valdés used his left hand to indicate a bassline for the classic “Besame Mucho,” or Mantilla nudged a folkloric rhythm into Miles Davis’s “Solar,” the group offered glimpses into the workings of a sophisticated engine. By Thursday night’s late set, the masterful gearshifts of Prieto and Mantilla inspired Valdés to drop out here or there, and soak in the rhythms. And they freed him to toy with melodic and harmonic structure, through subtle but wildly inventive exchanges with Benitez.

Inevitably, the focus returned to Valdés’s two hands, so dazzling they often sound like four. During an unaccompanied version of Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood,” his playing grew especially hushed and lyrical: Valdés might have been back at Havana’s Tropicana nightclub in the 1950s, where he first absorbed American jazz through the house pianist, his father, Bebo.

But Valdés was here, looking forward not backward in a new century, seeming very much at home in New York. —Larry Blumenfeld

Boogie Reborn

Jammin’ bassist brings Allmans’ husky cousins back to life

A sartorially diverse crowd attended the Gov’t Mule show Tuesday night, at least by jam-band standards: a quarter-audience each in flannels, tie-dyed shirts of other bands, motorcycle shop tees, and Mule shirts. Of the latter, the most popular by far was the current tour’s “Rebirth of the Mule.”

When Gov’t Mule released their debut album in ’95, the band was just a side project for Allman Brothers’ guitarist Warren Haynes and bassist Allen Woody; Mule were the Allmans’ bluesier, trippier cousin. After Woody died in 2000, the band played for a couple of years with bassists ranging from Flea to Jason Newstead. This fall, though, journeyman Andy Hess was hired as Woody’s permanent replacement. The three packed nights at the Beacon marked the Mule’s first hometown tour stop with Hess.

Hess lacked Woody’s performance pizzazz and customized, two-headed bass-mandolin, but that didn’t stop him from dependably anchoring the substantial counterpoint solos of Haynes and keyboardist Danny Louis. In “No Need to Suffer,” he stacked seven or eight notes into a furious tempo. The two sets, spread over almost three hours, were likewise highlighted by a 10-minute solo from drummer Matt Apts and a show-stopping rendition of Traffic’s “Low Spark of High Heeled Boys,” with Louis channeling Steve Winwood’s organ half.

The night belonged to Haynes, though. He channeled Winwood’s other half, the high register, but—in usual Mule-cover fashion—made the tune huskier and heavier. Where Mule originals like “Thorazine Shuffle” and the band’s theme song became extended showcases of Haynes’s virtuosity, the cleverly woven remakes showed off Mule’s minor-key mastery: portions or abstractions of Otis Redding’s “What Dreams May Come,” Creedence’s “Effigy,” the Beatles’ “I Want You,” and Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.” The encore was a blues standard, “It Hurts Me Too,” and Haynes’s slide guitar sent the stoners home happy. —Bill Werde