Lorraine Gordon trumped George Bush. State Department policy won’t allow musicians to travel from Cuba to the U.S. So Gordon, who couldn’t pack her Village Vanguard again by booking Havana-based pianist Chucho Valdés, upped the ante: a weeklong engagement by Chucho’s dad, Bebo, who left Cuba shortly after Castro’s revolution and has lived in Sweden since 1963.
The elder Valdés, a pianist, made his Vanguard debut at 87, in duet with Spanish bassist Javier Colina. He brought along much of the Cuban-music history he helped set in motion. Mambo pioneer Valdés also played on the earliest known Cuban jazz recordings, 1952 descarga sessions for Mercury. He was the Tropicana’s house pianist during its Havana heyday.
Though he played mostly in obscurity after resettling in Sweden, Valdés now enjoys fresh success. His scene-stealing appearances in Calle 54, Fernando Trueba’s 2000 Latin jazz documentary, prompted a series of recordings.Lagrimas Negras, with flamenco singer Diego El Cigala, was an international hit in 2003. The career-spanning Bebo De Cuba, which features one CD each for a small group and big band, recently earned Valdés his fourth Latin Grammy in three years.
Tapes rolled for another CD at the Vanguard’s basement room on Sunday. Yet Valdés’s 90-minute set felt like a parlor recital. Cuban virtuosos typically spill out their talent in overwhelming waves, but Valdés played disarmingly soft passages punctuated by a chiming octave here and there. His short pieces covered much ground: original compositions from those 1952 sessions; his big-band hit “Ritmando Cha Cha Cha”; the Arsenio Rodriguez classic “Dile a Catalina.” He wove speedy runs and convincing boogie-woogie into Bill Evans’s “Waltz for Debbie,” and achieved tender climax with two tunes composed by his hero, Ernesto Lecuona.
Nothing could match Valdés’s duet with Cachao in Calle 54, but Colina proved a sensitive partner who benefited from the subtle ingenuity of the pianist’s comping. The two capped the program with “Lagrimas Negras,” which they recorded together. Then Valdés sat back down for a quick “Tuxedo Junction.” Maybe it was a coy reference to the Cuban-American crossing point he’d put on the map. Or just a nod and a wink before goodnight.