The Chucho Valdes Quartet proves that Cuban jazz is the best jazz 

Chillin' with Chucho

click to enlarge The Chucho Valdes Quartet plays with stunning prowess and cohesion.

Provided

The Chucho Valdes Quartet plays with stunning prowess and cohesion.

You've sat on the beach all day soaking up the sun but there's a night of celebration ahead, so you take a cool shower before getting dressed up for a big dinner. That's what listening to the Chucho Valdés Quartet at the Gaillard felt like on Thursday night. Or juxtapose a joint and a cup of coffee in the morning. That's the sound of Chucho. At once relaxed and full of energy, the band took us on a ride that was both soothing and invigorating.

"This is literally a high point," said Ranky Tanky drummer Quentin Baxter as he introduced the band. He was absolutely right. The best bands always have two drummers, but most have more than four members. In this Quartet, Valdés' piano is the only source of melody, save bassist Yelsy Heredia singing along with his bass notes like a human octave pedal. But that's all they need — more instrumentation might dilute Valdés' duality as he plays two contrasting riffs with each hand.

Chucho Valdés Quartet is like the Bela Fleck and the Flecktones of Cuban jazz—each member can sit back and contribute to the whole, and when it's their turn to shine, remind you that they're on the very short list of musicians with "best in the world" status. Drummer Dafnis Prieto took several solos throughout the evening, demonstrating dexterity that emitted excited, audible "wows" from the audience. Percussionist Yaroldy Abreu Robles was even more fun to watch on his conga fills, with his eyes wide and dreadlocks flying. During songs, he'd reach behind him to what seemed like a never-ending bag of tricks, revealing bells, shakers, chimes and rain-makers that added critical fills and flourishes to the sonic canvas.

But it was Heredia who provided the evening's best visual entertainment. Dressed in a Charleston-appropriate pink shirt and bowtie, he used his entire body to play his upright bass, bouncing and bending in time with the music's movement. Valdés leads the band like a singer — when his fingers are at the keys, the band listens and plays to him. But when he sits back, Heredia becomes the leader. A 90-minute show that's nearly a third bass and drums might sound tedious on paper, but every moment was enraptured bliss.

The setlist was loose, and all of the songs were instrumental. During the few pauses, Valdés offered a simple "Thank you" into his microphone, or recognized a member of the band. But after big moments, he also stood up and threw his arm down in emphatic joy, grinning ear to ear at his band and the audience. Las palabras no son necesarias.

The minimal talking didn't leave anything lacking — rather, it felt appropriate for Spoleto, where bands often struggle to rouse their audience to their feet, perhaps not realizing the generally older median age. Spoleto crowds show their appreciation by buying tickets, clapping profusely, and standing at the end of the show. That was more than enough for the Quartet, whose energy seemed to build higher and higher as their musical conversations played off of each other.

The set fluctuated from slow and sultry to warp speed polyrhythms. The band relaxed, then Valdés gave a nod, and they'd drop into a rumba jam almost impossible to sit still to. The night played out like an insider's tour of Cuba, covering the soundtrack of every mood and time of day. The 76-year-old Valdés steered the ship, moving his nimble wrists and fingers with the ease of a man 50 years younger, and rarely looking down at the keys. His eyes were on his band and the intimate, exhilarating conversation we were all allowed to sit in on.

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