Cuba’s greatest living pianists at SFJAZZ

Chucho Valdés and Gonzalo Rubalcaba – Photo courtesy SFJAZZ

This week in San Francisco, lovers of Cuban jazz have a rare opportunity to see two of the greatest living pianists which that country has produced – Chucho Valdés and Gonzalo Rubalcaba – on stage together, at SFJAZZ. In a program entitled Trance, these two legendary artists will share with their audiences an intimate program of duo and solo performances – four evenings of pure jazz piano, Cuban style.

Chuco Valdés – pianist, composer and arranger, and winner of six GRAMMY® and three Latin GRAMMY® Awards – is regarded as the most influential figure in modern Afro-Cuban jazz. According to The New York Times he’s “one of the world’s great virtuosic pianists”. First taught by his father – the pianist, composer and bandleader, Ramón “Bebo” Valdés – Chucho graduated from the Conservatorio Municipal de Música de la Habana at the age of 14, formed his first jazz trio a year later, and at the age of 18 made his debut with one of the great orchestras in modern Cuban music history, Sabor de Cuba, directed by his father.

Not content with performing with a great Cuban orchestra, Valdés founded his own ensemble, Irakere, in 1973, and although it wasn’t known outside Cuba at the time, it wasn’t long before Dizzy Gillespie heard the band on a visit to the island, and arranged for it to be signed up by CBS. In 1978, Irakere debuted at Carnegie Hall as part of the Newport Jazz Festival, and the following year was awarded the GRAMMY for Best Latin Recording.  Valdés stayed with the ensemble until 2005.

The talents of pianist and composer Gonzalo Rubalcaba had already been recognized in his home country when he was discovered in 1985 by Dizzy Gillespie – who described him as “…the greatest pianist I’ve heard in the last 10 years”…. Rubalcaba, too, had a father who was a pianist, composer and bandleader, and young Gonzalo was playing drums in his father’s orchestra at the tender age of 6. Following his graduation from the Institute of Fine Arts in Havana, he swung into the world of touring musicians, visiting Europe, Africa and Asia with the Orchestra Aragón, as well as touring his native Cuba, and by 1984 was leading his own Afro-Cuban band, Grupo Proyecto.

In 1999 Gonzalo Rubalcaba was listed by Piano & Keyboard Magazine as one of the great pianists of the 20th century – along with names as illustrious as Glenn Gould, Martha Argerich and Bill Evans – and Sir Simon Rattle has referred to him as “the most gifted pianist on the planet …”. The list of awards that Rubalcaba has received is highly impressive. Among these are two GRAMMYs, two Latin GRAMMYS, the PALMAR D’OR” of the Music Academy in Paris, the Latin Pride National Award, he has been recognized by The Art Critics Association in Japan, the Festival Internacional de Jazz de Barcelona, and the ASCAP Foundation, and he was the 2001 Leader Circle Laureate of the San Francisco Jazz Festival Organization. Since 2015 he has been a faculty member of the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami.

Chucho Valdés and Gonzalo Rubalcaba are at SFJAZZ from Thursday to Sunday, August 2nd to 5th. For more information, and for tickets, visit the SFJAZZ website.

Information sourced from:

SFJAZZ program notes

and artists’ websites:

Chucho Valdés

Gonzalo Rubalcaba


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