Issued just after his landmark two-week June 1998 gig at the Village Vanguard and subsequent U.S./Canada tour, Chucho Valdés' first album for Blue Note bears out a lot of the hype surrounding this hugely gifted Cuban pianist. Unlike many of today's younger Cuban keyboard hotshots, Valdés not only has great technical chops and musical erudition, he manages to stay closely tied to his Cuban rhythmic roots. Thus, he employs a Cuban percussionist Roberto Vizcaino Guillot along with the standard bass (Alain Pérez Rodriguez) and drums (Raúl Píñeda Roque), which dramatically increases the possibilities for rhythmic experiments. Valdés more often than not is all over the keyboard, comfortable with everything from Ravel-ian classical complexity to Bill Evans' introspection to Cecil Taylor-like crunches. But there are surprisingly few wasted motions; all of the notes fit. He creates tremendous excitement on "Con Poco Loco" (which ends with a sly steal from "Giant Steps"), and suddenly breaks into a cornucopia of European stream-of-consciousness fireworks before returning to Cuba on "Son Montuno." However, the best moments on Bele Bele en La Habana come when Valdés hooks his fire-eating technique into the groove and doesn't let go. "El Cumbanchero" contains some sudden rhythmic shifts that will have you leaping out of your chair, and "Tres Lindas Cubanas" gradually builds a great head of steam. This CD will give you a much better idea of Valdés' pianistic capabilities than any of his records with Irakere. On a political level, it is interesting and disheartening to note that Valdés recorded this album in Toronto under the auspices of EMI Music Canada; a direct signing with Blue Note would have exposed the American company to charges of trading with the enemy. Obviously, as of 1998, the Cold War was not completely over.
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AllMusic Review by Richard S. Ginell