SFJAZZ Honors Chucho Valdés at Annual Gala


Chucho Valdes (left), Omara Portuondo and Dianne Reeves each performed during the Jan. 31 SFJAZZ Gala at the the SFJAZZ Center in San Francisco.

(Photo: Drew Altizer)

Like a jewel proudly situated alongside some of San Francisco’s most significant performing arts institutions, the SFJAZZ Center shimmered on Thursday during its 2019 gala, an event honoring six-time Grammy Award-winning Cuban pianist Chucho Valdés.

While some of the most generous gala patrons were treated to a lavish sit-down dinner upstairs, downstairs at the pre-concert party, the large, well-heeled glitterati buzzed around the lobby-turned-party space, nibbling on gourmet snacks, sipping cocktails and chatting it up. The Joe Henderson Lab, an intimate venue in the back, provided the perfect setting for pre-concert performances from members of SFJAZZ’s High School All-Stars, followed by the Valdés family band, showcasing the considerable talent of daughter Leyanis on piano and son Jessie on percussion.

Rebeca Mauleón, director of education at SFJAZZ, and an acclaimed pianist, composer, author and Grammy-nominated producer, got up on stage to talk about the high-school ensemble, as well as the organization’s education and outreach programs. “They really are the best of the best in the Bay Area of high school musicians,” she said. A fan who became a close friend and collaborator with Valdés, for Mauleón, the event was a particularly momentous occasion. “We developed a wonderful bond,” she said before the gala, “and I feel really lucky to be able to celebrate with him and to honor him for all the incredible contributions he has made.”

Among the numerous and notable musicians in attendance was seven-time Grammy Award nominee and Afro-Latin percussionist John Santos, who later performed during the gala.

“Tonight is a great night for all of us,” Santos said before the festivities. “We are honoring Chucho Valdés. He is our teacher, our mentor and our inspiration, and it’s nothing but an honor to be here with him tonight.”

Already warmed up and full of energy and palpable excitement, the crowd settled into the center’s sleek Miner Auditorium for an evening of music. The night slowly unfolded with a series of sets from a star-studded ensemble of musicians, intermingled with a few videos and speeches, and the presentation of SFJAZZ’s Lifetime Achievement Award to Valdés.

The pianist sat in with many of the ensembles, showcasing his ability to maneuver up and down the keyboard with lightning precision, or to take spare, quieter and lusciously harmonic journeys.

Irakere 45, an extension of the ensemble Valdés helped found, rocked the stage with its explosive Afro-Cuban rhythms. Leyanis and Jessie Valdés sat in with the troupe, as did the astonishing SFJAZZ Collective, offering tight, polyrhythmic percussion and a dazzling horn section, particularly nailing a fresh arrangement of Antonio Carlos Jóbim’s “Waters Of March.”

Five-time Grammy Award-winning vocalist Dianne Reeves then took the stage with just Valdés for a captivating version of “My Foolish Heart,” and then was joined by 88-year-old Cuban vocalist Omara Portuondo, for a delightful version of “Bésame Mucho.” A member of Buena Vista Social Club and a legend in her native Cuba, Portuondo was dressed in a glittery dress and decorative headband intimating her standing in the music community.

Undeniably, one of the most moving performances of the evening was the intimate duet between Valdés and Portuondo on “Dos Gardenias,” a tune included on Buena Vista’s 1997 self-titled album. The pair often locked eyes as they performed—Portuondo singing soulfully with a deep, smoky, vibrato—speaking volumes about their friendship, as well as their longtime musical connection.

Adding a bright, fresh and youthful tone to the evening, two-time Grammy Award-winning British singer Corinne Bailey Rae, backed by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, got the audience grooving to her global hit, “Put Your Records On.” The evening culminated with an after-party, featuring Rae, as well as, the Preservation Hall band rocking the stage in the Miner Auditorium, and Jesus Diaz Y Su QBA transforming the Joe Henderson Lab into an intimate nightclub in Havana, with its compelling Afro-Cuban beats and melodies.

SFJAZZ has a lot to be proud of, and the gala was a fitting tribute to its legion of accomplishments.

“We do something here that is unusual in the country, if not the world,” Randall Kline, SFJAZZ founder and executive director, said prior to the event. “It is a new model, a blend between the focus of a concert hall, and the comfort and informality of a club. We’re doing close to 500 shows a year, we’ve got extensive educational outreach and activities, and the bigger picture is that this music really reflects a multi-cultural point of view.” DB

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