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Bebo Valdes Brings Havana To Village Vanguard

Bebo Valdes left Havana 50 years ago, but at the piano, it's as if he's still there. Back then, he was a modernist, up on the latest American and Cuban trends, but he still loves the tunes he played when he was coming up — 1930s oldies like "Siboney," "Green Eyes" and "The Peanut Vendor." The old ways haunt his fingertips and piano hammers. He's not reviving anything. He just kept on doing it the old way, long after music in Cuba had moved on.

Valdes makes the piano sing. He has the grandeur of those old keyboard showmen, who had the touch and timing and confidence to pull off sweeping romantic gestures. Beyond that, he can really play.

On Live at the Village Vanguard, Valdes shares billing with a frequent duo partner, the Spanish flamenco and jazz bassist Javier Colina. The bassist gets plenty of solo space, and likes to quote old pop and folk tunes as much as Valdes does. Colina is best in the call-and-response dialogs, where bass and piano swing each other around like dance partners.

A lot of jazz records get made at the Village Vanguard, as Valdes knows. He plays Bill Evans' "Waltz for Debby," recorded there in a classic version. But something happens on this Vanguard record I don't recall from any others: The Cuban standard "Bilongo" erupts into an impromptu sing-along, a spontaneous tribute to New York multiculturalism.

The old Cuban pianists didn't usually have an affinity for the blues, but Valdes always identified with American music, and he remains a man of the world. If he makes swinging up-tempo blues sound out of context at the Village Vanguard, of all places, chalk it up to his transporting the house to another city in another time. It was as if, spending the evening in old Havana, he wanted to remind his audience that he knew where he was all along.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.