Chucho Valdés and the Afro-Cuban Messengers score a standing ovation at Herbst Theatre

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The Latin jazz pianist takes a seat.
PHOTO BY KEVIN LEE

Last week, Cuban pianist Chucho Valdés demonstrated a shared skill set with San Francisco 49er tight end Vernon Davis. Both are impressively big men whose physical presence belies a breathtaking agility. 

Performing in front of a packed Herbst Theatre last Monday evening, the 70-year-old Valdés spent the majority of the 90-minute concert alternating between Latin and jazz, delegating and allowing his Afro-Cuban Messengers to shine. Many of the tracks were off Valdés’ recent album Chucho’s Steps (Four Quarters Records), with the constant shifts of “Zawinul’s Mambo” and the cool, breezy “New Orleans” serving as highlights. Valdés, resplendent in a violet velvet sportcoat and purple tones, spoke little, allowing a gesture here and a glance there to guide his team.

With time running out, the Cuban superstar took over with a game-winning score. Accompanied by bassist Lázaro Rivero Alarcón  and drummer Juan Carlos Rojas Castro, Valdés moseyed into a blues ditty before embarking on a solo run. His fingers leapt into a stunning series of trills, dancing from one side of the piano to the other with an absurd combination of power and grace. Here was a man using all of his beguiling dexterity to build the Herbst crowd into a frenzy, on a blues track no less. After performing the piano equivalent of bulldozing five defenders, Valdés, the good teammate that he is, brought Alarcón and Castro in for the finish. The crowd gave a well-deserved standing ovation.

One of Valdés teammate got a bit enthusiastic with the touchdown celebration. During the deserved encore, bata drummer and vocalist drummer Dreiser Bambolé bounded offstage, somersaulted into the aisle, leapt back onstage and snaked his way around Valdés and the band. A nearby usher, entranced by the enthusiastic percussionist, busted out some salsa moves while waving his hands and imploring the crowd to dance. Few of the crowd obliged; they were still basking in the greatness from the previous performance.

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