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A Cuban classic

Live at the Village Vanguard
Live at the Village Vanguard
By Bebo Valdés and Javier Colina

Sony: 2008

This review first appeared in Turbula in December 2008.

It's a spine-tingling experience lstening to Bebo Valdés tickling the ivories in this 2007 session at New York's legendary jazz club, still as powerful in his playing at 85 as he was at 25, and far more nuanced with the wisdom the decades have brought.

Accompanied only by Javier Colina on a stand-up bass, the Cuban ex-patriate (he fled the Castro dictatorship for Europe more than four decades ago), he performs a riveting set of mostly Cuban standards, plus a scintillating reading of Bill Evans' "Waltz for Debby" that is fully as immersed in Evans' modern jazz as the other 13 tracks are in the Latin realm.

If not as well-known a jazz pianist as an Evans, Oscar Peterson or Art Tatum, he has as fully developed a personal style, based on both hands being co-equal in carrying the melodic theme. His ability to switch the lead from one hand to the other is consistently impressive.

The song list takes in classics of the Cuban canon like "Siboney" and "Andalucia," giving them readings that manage to be both utterly alive and yet very sophisticated at the same time. Given that Valdés was a major player in the golden age of Cuban big band and jazz, from the late 1930s through the late '50s, these beautiful renditions aren't a surprise – except that they're being performed with such flair and exuberance more than half a century after their heyday.

Another treat is his own "Bebo's Blues," which is a rollicking 1920s-style classic American blues, closer to Bessie Smith or Ma Rainey than to B. B. King or anything out of Havana. His rolling left-hand figures recall the Kansas City blues of Jay McShann, while the reference in his solos to Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" is a sort of musical wink to let you know he's having great fun.

Perhaps as much fun as those of us who get to listen.