The stars are gathering at SFJAZZ this week as three of today’s greatest Latin Jazz pianists pay tribute to the pianist and composer known as the ‘Gershwin of Cuba’ – Ernesto Lecuona. Chucho Valdés, Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Michel Camilo – who all appeared in a recent documentary entitled Playing Lecuona – will appear at SFJAZZ to honor an artist described by AllMusic as “Arguably the most important Latin musical figure of the early 20th century”.
Lecuona was a prolific composer who wrote over 600 songs – numbers such as Malagueña, Andalucia (popularly known as The Breeze and I), Siempre en Mi Corazon (You are Always in my Heart), La Comparsa and Noche Azul – but he also composed operettas, ballets and an opera. Taught to play the piano by a sister, Ernesto Lecuona was initially known as a concert pianist, having furthered his studies at the National Conservatory in Havana, and then in Paris with none other than Maurice Ravel. After copyrighting Malagueña and Andalucia in the late 1920s, he formed a group known as the Lecuona Cuban Boys, which became highly successful when it toured America during the 1930s. He composed the scores for four MGM films in the early 30s, was nominated for an Academy Award for the 1942 film Always in My Heart, and in 1943 became the cultural attaché to the Cuban embassy in Washington, DC. After the War, he returned to his farm in Cuba, but left in 1960 following Castro’s revolution, and never performed publicly again. He died while on holiday in the Canary Islands in 1963.
Cuban pianist, composer and arranger Chucho Valdés – a highly influential figure in modern Afro-Cuban jazz – is known for his distinctive style which incorporates elements of Afro-Cuban, jazz, classical and rock music. “One of the world’s great virtuosic pianists” – according to The New York Times – he’s won six GRAMMY® and three Latin GRAMMY® Awards, of which the most recent was Tribute to Irakere: Live at Marciac, a celebration of the 40-year success of the band of which he was co-founder – with Paquito D’Rivera and Arturo Sandoval – and which he directed.
Gonzalo Rubalcaba – described by The New York Times as “one of the greatest musicians in jazz …. a pianist of almost supernatural abilities” – was born into a musical family in Havana, and initially trained as a classical pianist, obtaining a degree in music and composition from Havana’s Institute of Fine Arts. He now tours internationally as a solo pianist – both jazz and classics – and as a band leader, having developed a style which is very much his own. In 2002 he won two Latin GRAMMY® Awards – for co-production, with bassist Charlie Haden, for their Nocturne album (released by Verve), and the Gonzalo Rubalcaba Trio won the GRAMMY® for Jazz Album of the Year for their album Supernova (released by Blue Note Records). His 15 GRAMMY® nominations include five for Jazz Album of the Year.
Pianist, composer, bandleader and producer Michel Camilo is said by Jazz Review to be “one of kind when it comes to piano jazz explorations, and his unique playing style is all his own”. With a doctorate from Berklee, he is known for his brilliant technique, his artistry and virtuosity, spanning jazz, classical, popular and world music. At the age of 16 he became a member of the National Symphony Orchestra of the Dominican Republic, and made his debut as a conductor of the Orchestra in a recital in 1987, the year in which he became musical director of the Heineken Jazz Festival, a post he held through 1992. He won a Latin GRAMMY® in 2000 for his album Spain (released on the Verve label), and a 2004 GRAMMY ® in the Best Latin Jazz Album category for Live at the Blue Note.
The tribute to Ernesto Lecuona by Chucho Valdés, Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Michel Camilo opens to packed houses at SFJAZZ this evening, and runs until May 28. For more information and tickets visit the SFJAZZ website.
SFJAZZ program notes