Bebo Valdés at Jazz at Lincoln Center
It wasn't my idea to go see Bebo Valdés last Friday night—honestly, I had never even heard of the man before the day of the show. But it still felt like an honor to see the 88-year-old Mambo/Afro-Latin jazz legend perform in the striking Rose Theater, if only because he was so obviously venerated by all the other musicians on stage.
Valdés has a great story: the pianist at Havana's fabled Tropicana Hotel in the 1940s and 50s, he was among the group of musicians credited with inventing the Mambo, which became Cuba's signature sound. Fleeing Castro in the early 1960s, winding up in Sweden, falling in love with an 18-year-old at the age of 44 (they're still married today), Valdés then disappeared from the music scene for decades, only to reemerge and win two Grammys in recent years, including one for Suite Cubana, which he sometimes played, sometimes conducted, in the show we saw.
My ignorance of the genre made me more of an appreciative outsider than a real fan (of which there were many on hand), but I will say I liked the show's first half—heavy on the percussion, piano and guitar—better than the second, which amped up the brass considerably and at times sounded a little too big band for my taste. We were perched high over the stage (that's my terrible, surrepitious photo below; the above is from The Times), which gave us a great vantage point to watch Valdés's amazingly long fingers as they ran lightly over his keyboard, as well as offering an entertaining view of the many older patrons in attendance mamboing in their seats. Given the highbrow venue (the theater is really quite spectacular: modern and pretty, though DGlass felt it lacked warmth), I assume the musicians of the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra who played with Valdés are among the best of their craft, and they certainly sounded good, especially bandleader Arturo O'Farril's piano and Jimmy Delagado and Tony Rosa on percussion. And as for the composition itself, well... what's not to like about this kind of music? It sounds like smiling; it sounds like innocence, and hope; it sounds like any number of early '60s sitcom theme songs; it sounds like heat, and the old guys on my block, and cerveza, and the sun.