Three men get together for four days in New York to record a Cuban-inflected jazz album. They are pretty old: two of them are 83, one is 75. (Occasionally, they invite in a spring chicken of a saxophone player, a mere tyro at 53.) They don’t get around the way they used to, maybe, coming into the studio; they aren’t necessarily up on the latest hip trends in jazz, and they aren’t sure they care much for a lot of free-jazz frippery. They greet each other like the old friends they are, but the two oldest have never recorded together before, and they’re not quite sure how this is all going to go.
The bandleader is 83-year-old pianist Bebo Valdés, who got out of Cuba in 1957 when he smelled revolution in the air. You might have heard of his son Chucho Valdés, who is considered the leading Cuban pianist in the free world, but you probably haven’t heard Bebo play — he’s only made a handful of records here in the States, having long ago chosen Sweden as his home. But he is a legend among those who know what Havana was like back in the 1940s and ’50s. The man led the first descarga jam sessions, for goodness’ sake, and actually invented the batanga rhythm. His 1995 album Bebo Rides Again was the first time any of us had ever heard him, and he’s making up for lost time with a whole slew of recordings and guest appearances.
The bass player is Israel López, known as “Cachao” everywhere that it matters, and is also a legend in Cuban music, even though he too left Cuba in 1962. Cachao is known for his nimble bass work as well as for the hundreds of danzones he composed back on the island. Ever heard of something called “Mambo”? Cachao and his brother Orestes wrote it. Ever hear of the “Buena Vista Social Club”? They wrote it. Andy Garcia made a documentary about him back in 1994, but (unlike Garcia) Cachao has remained active all over the place, winning a Grammy in 1995 and releasing an average of an album a year even now. He looks amazing in the CD booklet, too — robusto, con muy fuerte, even at 83.
Seventy-five-year-old Carlos “Patato” Valdés is the percussionist, and if you don’t know about Patato you just don’t know what’s going on. He has been the last word in conga since 1950, when television brought his band, Conjunto Casino, to the attention of the rest of Cuba. Not only has he been the greatest conga player in the world for 50 years, he was also a dancer; that was him teaching Brigitte Bardot how to mambo in And God Created Woman, and I’d lay money that he can still dance better than the rest of us. His album The Legend of Cuban Percussion made a lot of people’s “best of” lists back in 2000.
Just getting these three into a studio together is an absolute miracle, but could have ended up sounding like a museum piece. Happily, El Arte del Sabor, which translates as “The Art of Flavor” for those of you who somehow took French or German in high school, is fresh and alive and tough-minded. To my ears, this album is the finest Latin jazz release of 2001, and it’s gonna take a miracle to keep it from being the standard for the rest of the decade.
To start with, let’s talk about the talent. None of these guys has missed a step at all. Bebo is simply a revelation here. He’s lyrical and romantic (check out “Negro de Sociedad” for piano seduction as fine as you could ever hope to hear), but he prefers to play hot dance music, and track after beautiful track showcases his skill at moving a song along. Just about all these pieces are many decades old, but he sounds young and modern as he glides through track after track. On “El Reloj de Pastora” you can glimpse what he must have been like back in Club Tropicana in 1956: his attack is smooth, then rough; pointillist, then flowing like a river; perfect.
But this isn’t a roots project by any means. Valdés hasn’t been in an isolation booth for the last forty years or anything — he knows what’s up, and he’s not afraid to show it. I was thrilled to hear the way he goes after “Lamento Cubano”, turning what could be a kind of moldy chestnut into a wistful meditation on his homeland by sheer force of will. And he’s as quick-witted as he is quick-fingered, throwing in random song quotations whenever he can. “Holiday for Strings” enlivens the groove on “Son de la Loma”, and his cover of “Route 66” turns into both “Salt Peanuts” and “Rhapsody in Blue” for hilarious stretches.
Cachao is probably the bassist you’d take with you if you only needed one, and his support throughout is crucial. He’s not flashy, but he’s always there, underpinning every melody with quiet authority. Cachao understands that this is Bebo’s show, and doesn’t take a lot of solos on this record, but when he does, he shows why he’s the most respected man on the big fiddle in all of Latin jazz — his bowed solo on “Si Llego a Besarte” is reason enough to own the disc, and it’s only a few seconds long. Patato is pretty much the same here: he’s lurking around on every track, but is so subtle you don’t really notice him much. But the three medleys, one each focused on bolero, conga, and guaracha would fall apart without him, and if you get the chance to really listen to his percussion work here, you want to go out and get everything he’s ever played on. (And rent And God Created Woman, too.)
Paquito D’Rivera stops by on sax for three numbers. He’s great and all, but these songs seem out of place, unnecessary, weird. This is a three-man show, and really should have remained one. But I don’t skip over them or anything, because I wouldn’t miss any of the 64 minutes on this disc. I expect to be listening to this album for years to come and I hope Bebo is with us for a long time, so I can hear more from him.