Posts Tagged ‘Vancouver Community College’


Chucho at VCC

November 2, 2012

Thank God for Facebook. That’s where I learned that the great Cuban jazz pianist Chucho Valdés was giving a masterclass at Vancouver Community College. “Open to the public and free,” said the post from John Korsrud, trumpet player, composer, leader of Latin jazz big band Orquesta Goma Dura, and VCC faculty member. I hesitated at first, but on the morning of the masterclass, I committed to going. That turned out to be an excellent decision. Not only was it a musically satisfying event, but there were so many moments that personally resonated with me.

I had no idea what a masterclass with Valdés would entail. I was wondering whether it would be geared to pianists, and how the Spanish-speaking Valdés would communicate with the participants and teach them his prodigious technique. I interviewed Valdés in 1998 before he performed at the Chan Centre – where he’s performing again tonight (November 2) – and his English was basic. I didn’t have to wait long to find out how it would work. Sal Ferreras, Dean of VCC’s School of Music, explained to the large audience in the College’s auditorium that the masterclass would involve various VCC student ensembles playing some tunes, and then Valdés offering comments. Ferreras, who years ago led a fiery band called Salsa Ferreras that influenced my love for Latin jazz, would provide translation.

An example of Valdés’ prodigious technique (not from the masterclass):

The first group, taught by bassist Laurence Mollerup, played interesting arrangements of songs by a jazz/funk/world music group I had never heard of Snarky Puppy. (Wonder if that’s a play on Skinny Puppy?) I  generally liked the tunes and the musicians’ playing on them. Chucho’s comments for the entire group, not just the two keyboardists, were very complimentary. Looking at the young players on stage, I thought about my son Miles and wondered whether the playing opportunities he’s getting at the music school he’s attending thousands of kilometres away are as good as this one. (He did tell me on the phone that iconic drummer Jack DeJohnette will be a guest artist at his school, so that’s not too shabby, especially considering Miles is a drummer.)

Next up was VCC’s Latin Jazz Ensemble, taught by Korsrud. Again, I thought the students played well. A surprise bonus was Hugh Fraser, who sat in as a special guest on trombone. I’ve been following Fraser’s career for more than 30 years, since he led the incendiary big band VEJI (Vancouver Ensemble of Jazz Improvisation), and I interviewed him many times in my jazz journalism days. Fraser still plays with a lot of fire, as he showed on his vigorous solos with the Latin group. In his comments, Valdés praised the students, Korsrud for his arrangements, and Fraser. Valdés and Fraser have worked together a number of time over the years, so there’s a lot of mutual respect there.

Then two students each played solo piano. If that had been me up there playing solo for Chucho Valdés, teachers and administration at my school, and a full auditorium, I would have been freaking out. But both of them seemed pretty calm, as they were in their relaxed playing. Once again, Valdés had nothing but good things to say. I was beginning to realize that he wouldn’t be giving anyone a critique, even though he could have mentioned some areas that could be improved. But I was OK with that. It must have been an invaluable confidence booster for the young musicians to be told by someone of Valdés’ stature that they did well.

Next Ferreras invited to the stage a 10-year-old boy who confidently played a tune from the Buena Vista Social Club repertoire. This kid had a very steady left hand that he used to keep a bass rhythm going while his right hand played the melody. Valdés commented on how difficult that is to do. After the song, the boy went to meet Valdés and he had the courage to ask if they could play a tune together: “The Peanut Vendor”, only one of Cuba’s most famous songs. When they sat down on the piano bench the boy initially chose the right side, which meant he would need to do the tricky melody. He’s obviously a smart kid because the Latin piano prodigy quickly realized he should play the bass part and let Valdés do his thing with the melody. So they switched places and sounded wonderful together, with the kid holding down the bass parts and the 71-year-old Valdés going all over the rest of the piano in his inimitable style.

Chucho and the wunderkind:

Chucho & 10-year-old prodigy

It was hard to follow that duet but the last student to perform, a pianist named Sasha with a quartet, changed things up with a engaging take on a Serbian tune. Again I thought of Miles because Sasha is also a guitarist and he played with my kid in the TD High School Jazz Intensive. Going way back, they were each in bands that were part of a School of Rock-type program when they were in their pre-jazz, early high school years. They’ve both come a long way from playing rudimentary classic rock.

Finally, the program concluded with Valdés playing together with a VCC faculty ensemble, including some of best jazz musicians from here. It was basically a descarga, a Latin jazz jam session, and all of the players held their own with Valdés. At one point he motioned to them to stop, and Valdés did this amazing solo that encapsulated his immense knowledge of Cuban music and jazz, and his skill. Then he played a montuno that signaled the musicians to seamlessly come back in. During the descarga I thought of Miles one more time because his drum teacher of the last few years, Bernie Arai, was among the faculty musicians, sounding terrific behind the kit.

Chucho, Hugh Fraser (trombone), Bernie Arai (drums), Laurence Mollerup (bass), and Jack Duncan (congas):

Chucho & VCC Faculty

So that’s what I was lucky enough to experience yesterday afternoon. If it was special for me, I can only imagine what a thrill it was for the students and faculty to play for and with such a master musician.

Trivia about the Valdés family:

  • Chucho’s father Bebo is another great Cuban pianist.
  • Bebo is 94.
  • Bebo and Chucho have the same birthday: October 9.
  • Chucho’s son Chuchito is also a stellar pianist, and I saw him perform at the Green Mill in Chicago. As far as I know he has a different birthday.