That of Bebo Valdés is one of the most amazing comeback stories in music; established as a top-rate Cuban musician by the 1950s, the overthrow of Batista by Cuban rebels forced him to emigrate, and by 1963 he had settled in Stockholm. After a long silence, Valdés returned to recording and beginning in 1993, made some of the most stunning albums of Cuban jazz anyone had heard in a long time, particularly in the Calle 54 release Bebo de Cuba (2002). On Calle 54's Bebo, Valdés returns to his roots to create a superb solo piano album outside the jazz context, interpreting the "standards" of Cuban instrumental music, the vast majority of which is notated as solo piano music whether meant for a band or some other combination of instruments. As a result, since the death of Ernesto Lecuoña much of this literature has wound up in the domain of classical pianists, among them Nohema Fernandez and Thomas Tirino, who play the music as it appears on the page and much of it excellently well. Valdés, however, has been around long enough to know that the tradition is somewhat different from that -- tradition requires some additional inventiveness on the part of the player, including short, improvised transitions and subtle flourishes. Valdés would know -- to him, the name of Moisés Simón is not one that appears at the top of a page of printed music but that of a man he once knew, and whose music he played in the same man's presence.
Bebo covers a generous cross section of practically the whole of Cuban piano literature, going back to José White's habanera La bella Cubana, which dates to 1853. Valdés' playing is rhythmically flexible in the extreme -- even the spaces in between notes seem to vibrate, pregnant with a sense of pulsation. The recording is close, almost too close, but you want it to be; at times, you can even hear Valdés gently pedaling, both to dampen the sound and to keep his playing just at the right speed. With apologies to Haiti, Jamaica, and Trinidad, it is not going too far to say that Cuba has produced the longest lasting and most distinctive heritage of music to be found among any island in the Caribbean, perhaps of any country of its relative size. However, it has also suffered from the most protracted and agonizing political upheaval and heritage of repression known in that part of the world. Bebo Valdés plays the "classical" music of Cuba with plenty of depth of expression, flexibility, sensitivity, and respect for the material in addition to working plenty of his own self into the music in keeping with tradition. Yet there is more to his playing than just these highly desirable elements; perhaps most distinctly in Simón's composition Marta, but throughout the whole of Bebo, Valdés has the sound of hope under his fingers. No matter how many discs you may have of Cuban piano literature by concert pianists, you will also want Calle 54's Bebo -- chances are, even concert pianists will want it as well; like a fine mountain spring, it's straight from the source.