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A titan of Cuban jazz, Bebo Valdés had been living in exile in Sweden for decades when he came to New York in November 2002 to record the music on this sprawling two-disc collection. The first disc features the pianist, composer and arranger’s Suite Cubana, a joyous big-band romp through original compositions that affectionately salute his old friend and compadre Israel “Cachao” Lopéz (credited as the “creator of the mambo”) as well as Bebo’s wife, Rose Marie; son Chuco Valdés; and a beloved friend of his grandfather’s, Cecilio, who looked after Bebo’s family as if it were his own. The second disc, dubbed El Solar de Bebo, comprises laid-back jams on equally personal, completely captivating melodies utilizing many of the same musicians from the big band. (The package also includes a 22-minute DVD chronicling the event.)
Producers Fernando Trueba and Nat Chediak surrounded Valdés with some of the best players available, including saxophonists Paquito D’Rivera (who doubles on clarinet), Bobby Porcelli and Mario Rivera; trumpeters Diego Urcola, Michael Phillip Mossman and Ray Vega; and trombonists Juan Pablo Torres, Luis Bonilla and Papo Vázquez. The big band is anchored by drummer Dafnis Prieto, the jam sessions by Steve Berrios. A veritable encyclopedia of Latin rhythms, the program delves into mambo, bembé, son, montuno, batanga (Bebo’s own invention) and joropo, and congas, timbales, güiro and tres conjure a pre-Revolution golden era of Cuban jazz.
Valdés, 84 at the time, is an elegant and understated presence on piano, exuding warmth, passion and nostalgia — never melancholy — for the home and the life he was forced to leave behind in exchange for artistic and personal freedom.— Bob Weinberg