On Saturday evening, jazz enthusiasts from the Fairfield community gathered at the Quick Center to listen to an incredible performance by the world famous Chucho Valdés and the Afro-Cuban Messengers.
“I’ve been excited about this evening since the program was announced last season,” said Adrienne Bryant, the assistant director of programming and audience development. “It’s not every evening that you get a true icon, a true legend on your stage, not just of jazz or of Latin jazz, but of music.”
The crowd at the Quick Center was slightly older, with representation from current Fairfield students mostly absent. But as the audience trickled in and viewed the set up of the stage—complete with a piano, three different sets of drums, a cello and a bass—the auditorium began to buzz with excitement.
Valdés has an impressive music career spanning over 50 years. Born in 1941 in Havana, Cuba, Valdés started playing songs on the piano by ear at the age of three and formed his first jazz ensemble at 15. He became a professional musician in the early 1960s when he worked as a pianist for the Martí Theatre, International Salon of the Havana Riviera Hotel and the Musical Theatre of the Havana Orchestra.
In 1973, Valdés founded the group Irakere, which was widely heralded for combining jazz, rock, classical and Cuban styles and became hugely influential in Cuban music. He formed his current group, Chucho Valdés and the Afro-Cuban Messengers, in 2009 and recorded his most recent album “Chucho’s Steps” with them. Valdés has won five Grammy Awards and three Latin Grammy Awards for his work.
A little after 8 p.m., Valdés shuffled onto the stage of the Quick Center to tremendous applause. A tall, older man wearing a purple checkered shirt and purple hat, his presence was unassuming to say the least. He took a humble bow, seated himself at the piano and immediately started on what at first appeared to be a slow, relaxing song.
Suddenly, blasts from the two brass players, tenor saxophonist Carlos Manuel Miyares Hernandez and trumpeter Reinaldo Melián Álvarez, jolted the audience into a fast-paced, energetic performance incorporating all members of the band. After several minutes of enthusiastic performing, the song ended just as abruptly as it began, a short beat of shocked silence hanging in the air before the audience erupted into applause.
Although this inaugural song took a sudden energetic twist, there were several others in the program that remained slower and more soulful the entire time. One song in particular featured the lead vocalist Mayra Caridad Valdés, Chucho’s sister who teamed up with him in 1994. Her rich, deep voice complimented the instruments beautifully and lulled the audience into a near trance.
The program only included around 10 songs over the hour and a half that Valdés and his band performed, but each of these songs was extremely unique and showcased the talents of all members of the group at different points.
In one song, bassist Lázaro Rivero Alarcón grooved in an impressive rundown of chords that was at points reminiscent of legendary guitarist Robert Johnson’s “Crossroad Blues.” Drummers Juan Carlos Rojas Castro, Yaroldy Abreu Robels and Dreiser Durruthy Bambolé each performed mind-bogglingly fast solos on their various sets. The brass players Hernandez and Álvarez added a sultry smooth quality to some songs and brought life and energy to others.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of the evening, though, was Valdés himself. Throughout most of the performance, he sat at the piano with the same apparent attachment as a man sitting at the bus stop, stoic expression on his face as though the energy and skill behind his playing wasn’t completely astounding. Occasionally, his virtuosic runs and rapid trills on the piano would stir him to energetically stomp his foot to the beat, but for the most part, he calmly surveyed his band and the audience. His tranquil demeanor was at complete odds with his lively, fast and skilled playing, clearly choosing to let his music “speak” for him.
The last song of the program brought the audience to their feet, cheering and yelling for an encore. Not one to disappoint, Valdés and his band reassumed the stage and ended the evening with another high energy performance that had all audience members clapping along and dancing in their seats. Vocalist Mayra even had the entire audience scatting along with her in a call-and-response.
When this final song ended, Chucho Valdés and the Afro-Cuban Messengers bowed to the audience with huge smiles. They gratefully applauded each other and the still cheering crowd, finally exiting the stage with just as much humility as when they entered.