And yet, for all the attention, Valdes is still enormously underrated, a point revealed by his stunning Live at the Village Vanguard, culled from those same April 1999 Vanguard shows. Valdes is always tagged as a Latin jazz pianist, a label that, while mostly accurate, doesn't begin to do his astoundingly broad talent justice. Valdes' last release, Briyumba Palo Congo, hinted at his versatility, turning up the heat on a Latin jazz version of "Caravan" while showing him getting lushly romantic on Gershwin's "Embraceable You." But where Congo was hot, Live at the Village Vanguard is positively volcanic, capturing one of the most incredible performers ever to touch the ivories in full flight.
Pianist Chucho Valdes' roots are in Cuban music, and that's what gives much of Village Vanguard its seductive sway -- the version of "My Funny Valentine" rendered as a beautiful danzon, the delicious son montuno of Arsenio Rodriguez's "Como Traigo La Yuca." But about four minutes into the scorching opener, "Anabis," Valdes' accompanying quartet drops out and it becomes clear this is no ordinary Latin jazz artist. The next few minutes of solo piano seem to encompass the entire history of the instrument -- from dazzling contrapuntal runs that would make Glenn Gould blush to lush chordal harmonies that recall Debussy to crashing Cuban montuno riffs to a barrelhouse boogie-woogie interlude. Valdes does it again in "Punto Cubano," building from what is essentially a two-chord vamp to spin off incredibly dexterous runs that echo Havana but also New Orleans, New York, Paris, and everything in between.
Valdes' masterful versatility is such that he makes us understand that Cuban music encompasses basically everything -- from the African rhythms brought by the Yoruba slaves to the European instruments and harmonies contributed by the Spanish colonizers, a combination that helped spark the development of jazz when many Cuban musicians migrated to New Orleans before the turn of the century. It's fitting then that Live at the Village Vanguard is, so far, Valdes' crowning achievement, since over its 60-plus years the club has produced historic live albums by jazz greats ranging from John Coltrane to Bill Evans to Dizzy Gillespie. In the same way, "To Bud Powell," Valdes' 10-minute ode to the bebop piano master, serves the same purpose. While the track is a moving tribute to an obvious idol of Valdes', it also demonstrates that he needn't look up too far when speaking of that jazz icon. Sooner or later, Valdes himself will be recognized as belonging to the same pantheon.