Lovano, Valdés Create Synergy at New York’s Birdland


Joe Lovano (left) and Chucho Valdés (seen here in a publicity photo) performed at Birdland in New York Nov. 22–27.

(Photo: © Jimmy Katz)

Joe Lovano and Chucho Valdés first met in 1986, when Lovano played the Havana Jazz Festival with Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra. As time passed, both signed contracts with Blue Note and kept track of each other’s recordings.

In 2003, Lovano again traveled to Havana behind the album Viva Caruso (Blue Note), with an edition of his Street Band that included the great New Orleans drummer Idris Muhammad, who joined Lovano and Chucho in an impromptu set. The notion of a collaboration strengthened thereafter as Lovano—who has recorded several classic albums with next-generation Cuban piano maestro Gonzalo Rubalcaba—made several guest appearances with Valdés.

Aspiration became reality when, earlier in 2016, they decided to co-lead a project with long-time Valdés collaborators Gastón Joya on bass and Yaroldy Abreu Robles on a four-conga/two-bongo setup, as well as frequent Lovano partner Francisco Mela on drumkit.

In October, they convened for rehearsals in Malaga, preceding a 12-concert tour of Europe, followed by another 18 November gigs in the U.S. that concluded with a six-night run at Birdland during Thanksgiving week. The first three nights were recorded on location for a potential future release.

To open the first set of night two, Thanksgiving Eve, the quintet played Lovano’s “The Dawn Of Time,” which debuted on his 1990 Blue Note album Universal Language, and was also recorded on 2009’s Symphonica and on ScoLoHoFo’s 2003 album, Oh!.

On his pithy opening solo, Lovano juxtaposed long, note-crammed lines with well-spaced notes, stated with his signature furry, voice-like tone. Joya’s fleet, horn-like solo transpired over a tight Abreu-Mela lock.

After Lovano swung the theme of Charlie Parker’s “Confirmation,” Valdés launched several choruses, transitioning seamlessly from idea to idea and style to style—including a vertiginous locked-hands passage—with absolute authority. Lovano’s declamation morphed through various shapes; after engaging in thematic exchanges with Joya, Abreu played ingeniously executed melodic variations on the congas.

Valdés introduced his “Son De Almendras” with a chromatic phrase. He moved briefly into Cecil Taylor territory before Lovano played a spare, atonal line on alto flute that coalesced into a danzon, briefly hinting at “Out Of This World.”

Valdés exploded out of the conjunto with a whirling initial chorus that morphed into a mambo. He trilled with the right hand while improvising lightning variations with the left, uncorking another chorus of percussive right-hand clusters before resolving back to the theme. He then offered an increasingly dissonant comp as Lovano declaimed a full-throated tenor solo.

Valdés prefaced “Monk’s Mood” with Tyner-to-Ravel variations, before entering a rubato duo with Lovano, postulating stark intervals that complemented Lovano’s portrayal of the complex emotions suggested by the melody.

After Lovano concluded his variations, Valdés opened an a cappella statement with a long run in the bass register, transitioning to percussive phrases that grew progressively more fleet. He eventually exploded into Cecil Taylor-esque dissonance, then eased into a medium-slow passage that evoked Hank Jones, Lovano’s partner for numerous duo conversations in the 2000s.

The tonality of Lovano’s mezzo soprano saxophone theme statement on Valdés’ “Abdel” (which debuted on Border-Free, the pianist’s 2013 collaboration with Branford Marsalis) accentuated the piece’s North Africa-meets-flamenco connotations, which became even more pronounced after Lovano followed Joya’s impeccable solo with his heady refractions of Coltrane’s language.

When he was done, Valdés entered an abstract space, unfurling left-hand variations in counterpoint to skittering right-hand lines, then engaging in left-right call-and-response before resolving with motifs culled from the Cuban classical canon.

The feel returned to tango for Lovano’s “Streets Of Naples” (from Viva Caruso), which featured a dancing solo by the composer, and more pianistic derring-do from Valdés. The next selection, Valdés’ “Clown,” on which Lovano played alto flute, began with an open section akin to, say, the Jimmy Giuffre Trio or Sam Rivers’ 1970s music, and then and coalesced into a beautiful line.

All members created colors, not least Abreu, who produced particularly striking effects with thin mallets on his bongos. The journey concluded with a Strayhorn-tinged melody.

To conclude, the quintet played “Mambo Influenciado,” a Latin-jazz Bud Powell homage by Valdés from his early years on a minor blues that contains implications of “Un Poco Loco” and “Bud On Bach.”

After the composer’s swinging bebop solo over the Abreu-Mela lock, Lovano answered with a feisty declamation, prompting yet another well-wrought, tumbao-rich bass solo, to which Lovano, positioned at center-stage, swayed in a circular shuffle. Lovano and Valdés traded exchanges with the drummers, endeding with a unison on the theme.

It was a bracing set, notable for many reasons: Valdés’ willingness to plunge wholeheartedly into a collaboration of ideas outside the realm of his arrangements and band tunes; Lovano’s ability to spur all members to take equal responsibility for treating the music as an open door and to follow the sonic flow; and Mela’s flexible, kinetic drumming, blending his experience on the New York scene with rhythms derived from his formative years in Cuba.

With a comprehensive recording of the proceedings in the works, it seems likely that Lovano and Valdés will reunite in the future for the next step.

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