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Sin Clave No Hay Na
MEDITATIONS ON TWO DESCARGAS, PART I
Chuchito Sets Fire to Green Mill
No arrests made.......
Yours truly has seen and heard enough that he isn't surprised very often and pleasantly surprised even less so. Having heard that Chuchito Valdes (who happens to be the son of Chucho Valdes and grandson of Bebo Valdes but plays well enough that he would still be a must-see if he were named Chuchito Jones) was coming up from Cancún for a couple of Chicago dates at the Green Mill, I psyched myself up for something great to share with you -- the start of a new tour with a stellar ensemble maybe? A new CD project about to be unleashed perhaps? --something like that in the news department.
No such luck. No tour, no new CD announcement to share with you. This was what it was - a 2-night stand at the Green Mill, one of Chicago's best jazz venues with musicians assembled specially for the occasion. Not only that, but not all of the musicians had even played with each other before (although most of them had). For better or worse, I was about to check out a couple of true descargas. When I asked about a set list, a couple of the musicians laughed. Time to cross the fingers and hope for the best, but considering who this is, maybe we'll get lucky...
Probably 90+% of the true jam sessions that go down in clubs nowadays aren't really worth writing about even when they are pleasant. Those of us who are serious listeners persevere in attending these because the exceptions not only are worth writing about, but the best ones even cook on a level far above anything you'll hear in a studio or a more structured, rehearsed live session. It all comes down to the musicians, the material and level of inspiration that descends upon the proceedings.
The Friday night set featured Chuchito on piano, Steve Sachse on bass, Frankie Ocasio on congas, Fred Cantu on trumpet and flugelhorn, Jose Diaz on bongo and Rafael Monteagudo on traps. The second night had Joe Frau on timbales instead of Jose Diaz on bongo and Tim Madden on trombone instead of Fred Cantu on trumpet. Steve flew in from Washington DC for the occasion; back home he plays with several bands including Sin Miedo, a DC-area based salsa band. Rafael, originally from Cuba, is now a New Yorker with powerful jazz chops, but he also plays with La Bolá, New York's excellent Timba band. Frankie is a local who has performed with several groups including Chuchito's earlier group when the latter haunted Chicago for a time. Fred Cantu is also a local who plays with several groups including Jose Valdes; Joe Frau is also a local who plays with other bands including Orchestra Infraverde, and Jose Diaz is also a local.
Although many of the songs had real names, I understood soon enough while I was listening why a set list wasn't in the picture -- these really were descargas in the grand tradition, which means that the kitchen sink was frequently quoted in different numbers, with a bit of Almendra here and Satin Doll there popping in for a visit in the middle of a piece. I also understood why some of them flew in from DC and NY to make this date. This wasn't just a group of really good musicians backing Chuchito -- these guys were all excellent soloists in their own right and had enough stage sense to turn together on a dime. The result sounded as tight as any prepared show but with a much higher energy level as the band and the audience all fed off each other. This was the level of enthusiasm that Panart was trying to capture in the 50s with Cachao, Julio Gutierrez et al in the Cuban Jam Session and Descargas recordings, but Panart didn't have the benefit of a live audience adding to the energy level, and solos were usually much shorter and simpler then than now.
Click this photo for more pictures of the group
Chuchito himself is a very audiovisual performer; when he is fired up, he makes Jerry Lee Lewis look like a zombie with rigor mortis by comparison, dancing with the piano now, then using it for a percussion instrument, even plucking the innards, the hands a total blur during his faster passages. If only because he has a larger palette available to paint with than his ancestors had, his technique already stands up well with theirs and will probably clearly surpass it in time barring any misfortunes as he ages.
But this wasn't all about him. The rest of the cast turned in great nights as well. Fred Cantu, Steve Sachse, Tim Madden and Rafael Monteagudo in particular turned in solo work of a calibre that seldom gets heard live in this genre (which probably explains what motivated Steve and Rafael to make the trip from out East). Considering that TIm literally passed out his business card to the rest of the musicians when he arrived, that is a particularly noteworthy accomplishment. We're going to be looking into their other projects in the future to see what's up there. We suspect that they might not get to stretch out as much in other settings as they did here, but if we're wrong, there are some major finds to be made.
Meanwhile, here's the thing. These were much better nights than we usually get to hear live even when bigger names are involved with rigorous rehearsals beforehand. So what does that all mean really? Well, that's why there will be a Part II to this piece eventually.
...To be continued...