Chucho Valdes and his quartet live in the moment 

All Rhythm, No Rules

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It would be difficult to tell the history of Cuban music, and Cuban jazz specifically, without mentioning Chucho Valdes. As a pianist, bandleader, and composer whose career has spanned five decades, Valdes is a towering figure in the jazz genre.

We can start with his membership in the Orquesta Cubana de Música Moderna, an ensemble that was criminally underrated in its early years (the late 1960s and early '70s) but featured Valdes alongside other all-stars like saxophonist Paquito D'Rivera, trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, and bassist Orlando "Cachaíto" López. The group played percolating, irresistible big-band music with layers of percussion and infectious rhythms designed for the soul and the dance floor. But it was after leaving the Orquesta that Valdes made perhaps his biggest mark on Cuban jazz.

Valdes founded Irakere with D'Rivera and Sandoval, and he has spent much of the last four decades leading that group through a dynamic fusion of styles. Mixing straight-ahead Cuban dance music with more complex Afro-Cuban jazz, Irakere served as a sort of musical laboratory for Valdes, allowing him to layer in all manner of auxiliary percussion ranging from bongos and congas to the more obscure arara drums and erikundi, which are similar to maracas.

As the other musicians in Irakere began to defect to the United States (D'Rivera in 1980 and Sandoval in 1990, though he had left the group long before that), Valdes stayed the course, piloting the group through 32 albums of languorous, sensual dance music punctuated by surprising gentle ensemble horns and always danceable rhythms. Over that long career, Valdes and Irakere won six Grammy awards and three Latin Grammys, and as they evolved they brought new sounds into the fold. On "Valle de Picadura," for example, the group brings in a hard, gritty rhythm guitar reminiscent of the American funk music of the 1970s, and it blends in just fine with the song's swaying tempo.

What's perhaps most interesting about Valdes is that he's rarely, if ever, a showy player. His piano playing is typically deeply embedded in the music, serving as part of the rhythm section rather than taking the lead in the ensemble. Through a translator, Valdes says that that rhythm is the foundation of his chosen instrument.

"The piano is a harmonic, melodic and rhythmic instrument," he says. "Therefore, they can make different kinds of rhythm."

Valdes' Spoleto performance will be with a quartet (Dafnis Prieto on drums, Yaroldy Abreu Robles on percussion, and Yelsy Heredia on bass), and he says that the larger the ensemble, the more possibilities there are, as opposed to some performers who prefer the space a smaller format like a trio can provide.

"A quartet has more resources than a trio," he says, "And the big bands have a much more varied instrumentation and offer more sound possibilities."

As for what he'll be playing for his Spoleto performance, at this point Valdes has no idea. He typically eschews a set list and prefers to let the music create itself when he's onstage with the band.

"I don't like to determine what's going to happen beforehand," he says. "I almost never create a program; when we practice, I start to select (the songs) according to the environment we're sitting in at the moment."

At age 76, the albums and innovations might be coming more slowly than they used to, but Valdes is now in the role of a mentor, passing along the lessons he learned from his father, Bebo Valdes (also a pianist), to his son Chuchito.

And what are those lessons?

"Discipline and respect for the music," he says, "and for the audience."

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