The enduring brilliance of Cuba’s elite jazz musicians lies not just in their ability to fuse jazz with the island’s multiple rhythms. It’s their ability to lure dancers to the floor that keeps the music fresh and relevant – and a participatory experience for concert-goers.
Valles blends the sophistication of jazz with the popularity and streetwise flavor of the island’s Afro-Cuban dance music — traditional son and folkloric rumba, mambo, modern salsa and timba, the island’s fiery contemporary dance music.
As with a number of modern Cuban ensembles, what’s intriguing about Valle’s 13-member band is the way it overwhelms an audience in so many ways. With a powerful rhythm section of drums, timbales and congas and roaring horns, it captivated the audience continuously during a nearly two-hour set, in varied tempos and moods.
That wasn’t surprising, given Valle’s strong musical formation. The bandleader, who began playing flute at 10, was a member of Irakere, the Grammy-winning group led by pianist Jesus “Chucho” Valdes. For more than 15 year’s he’s led his own bands with both listeners and dancers in mind.
The bandleader doesn’t play maracas, but flute. He gets his nickname from the appearance his huge Afro gave him as a teenager. These days, the virtuoso performer keeps his hair short. But he still has an incredibly quick sense of hearing and the ability to deliver a flood of melodies, as he did through 10 rhythmic and melodic tunes that fused jazz sensibilities with Cuban sabor, or flavor.
The band opened the show with Obatala Ayacuna, a Latin jazz composition that shows how Valle has been able to expand the range of the Cuban flute within complicated musical forms. Santeria-inspired vocals led to solos on flute and tenor sax, followed by a flurry on timbales and a vocalist’s call that dancers take the floor.
On the up-tempo Castigala, the band had the crowd singing: “Ella no te quiere, ella no te ama” (She doesn’t want you; she doesn’t love you.) Valles followed that with Danzon Siglo 21, in which he used a sextet to infuse the courtly genre with 21st Century Latin jazz.
On El Tren, Valle gave a nod to his Irakere roots in a booming number that at first seemed to overtake the sound system with distortion. After he took off on a flute solo with a rapid-fire series of notes, a timbale solo prompted Rene Thompson, a Cuban dancer who lives in Minneapolis, to lead the crowd in a line dance.
The bandleader consistently returned to dance music, as he did on Suspendan los comentarios. Joining him on stage were young Cubans now living in Minnesota who demonstrated the hip-shaking moves now popular on the island. As one of the vocalists draped a Cuban flag on his shoulders, he sang of his devotion to his homeland: “Este es tabaco, este es ron,” (This is tobacco, this rum), appearing to borrow a verse from a song by Orishas, the popular Cuban rap group now based in France.
In a traditional number, the band also played Tumba Tumbador, a mambo-son by Beny More, the Cuban great of half a century ago, and Te lo llevaste to!, a timba-laced composition that inspired modern moves on the floor.
For jazz festivals, Valles has put together tremendous ensembles that appeal to the jazz aficionado. But he knows that his touring band must keep its connection to dancers. He succeeds by delivering intense music that doesn’t head in too complicated a musical direction, thereby avoiding a disconnect with dancers that has plagued American jazz bands for generations.
The band uses no special effects or electronic wizardry — just instruments and voices. Its pure musicianship would blow away bands led by today’s pop superstars.
Nothing beats a real band playing timeless and stimulating music.