Blue Note 2002
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Between his 1986 debut album Lucumi and today's 2002 Fantásia Cubana, the ongoing career of celebrated Cuban Jazz pianist Chucho Valdés spans an astounding 18 albums. That's more than one per year. In fact, 11 of them were released in the last three years alone. One gropes for words like hyper-prolific or creatively liberated just to keep pace. The founder of Cuba's top Jazz orchestra Irakere -- whose original cast included luminaries Arturo Sandoval and Pacquito D'Rivera -- Valdés began playing the piano at the tender age of three, led his own group at 16 and studied the classical idiom under Zenaida Romeu.

The subtitle "Variations on Classical Themes" of his latest release alerts Valdés buffs to an unexpected stylistic turnabout. The maestro calls it "one of the most important challenges of my career as a pianist" - brilliant solo romps through the terrain of Chopin, Debussy, Ravel, Lecuona and some of his own compositions in the classical milieu, filtered through the potent prism of bravura power chops reminiscent of Rachmaninov and Horowitz, or the unbridled improvisational inventiveness of Jazz legends Art Tatum or the young Oscar Peterson.

To which recipe now add famed classical producer Max Wilcox who recorded Artur Rubinstein's celebrated 17-year opus at RCA Victor Red Seal. For Fantásia, Wilcox contracted for his favored hall, the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York. He also stuck with the same proven twin Sennheiser omni setup that had already captured Dawn Upshaw and the Emerson String Quartet as well as keyboard greats Richard Goode, Peter Serkin and Rubinstein. What's more, he commissioned for his favored Hamburg Steinway, a choice enthusiastically endorsed by the Cuban maestro.

As Wilcox' liner notes recount, the 54 minutes he committed so expertly for posterity were captured not only in record time -- less than two days -- but went under the edit knife for only one single occasion, doubling us back to the former forces of hyper-prolific creative freedom.

If your prior exposure to classical solo piano crossovers into Jazz came under the gently sophisticated, intellectually inspired mentorship of French keyboard wizard Jacques Loussier -- or if you adore his landsman Michel Camillo -- the sheer muscularity, boisterous force and dynamic impact of Fantásia Cubana will come as a bracing wakeup call. Call it a shot of choice high-caliber island rum. Or a Montecristo No. 4 early in the morning. Strong stuff only for the impervious of temperament and stout of condition.

Said descriptions don't at all discount the threadlike interludes of lyricism, as in the introduction to Chopin's E-minor Prelude theme, Debussy's Arabesque or Ravel's Pavane For A Dead Princess.

But - giving the keys to your treasured silk ride of a luxury sedan to a high-performance athlete will result in some high-speed high-risk maneuvers testing your suspension and heart to the max. Likewise, handing Valdes the keys -- pun intended -- to the romantic masters leads to some nouveau scenery: Full-handed, heavily weighted power chords taxing the physical mechanism of the instrument; deftly executed walking bass lines full of vigor and sharply rhythmic attacks; tumultuous turns of temperamental whimsy that forcefully reminds us that a piano -- literally -- employs hammers to excite its strings; and an overall character of voluptuous density that favors machismo, élan and verve over subtlety or (French?) understatement.

The prior reference to Horowitz was fully deliberate. What Valdés brings to these meditations is a very similar style. It's dominated by massive fortitude and unbridled technical mastery. In some ways, it feels like a throwback to the Russian school of piano playing. Its current incarnation Arcadi Volodos possesses a similarly devilish command of virtuoso power play yet favors a higher degree of bel canto delivery. Here Valdés tends to substitute the latter for incisive brawn and hair-raising violence.

This heroic aspect is further augmented by a rare instrument capable of withstanding the enormous demands made upon it. Then, it is recorded not in a small and intimate Jazz club but the expansive ambiance of a first-class concert hall that develops the huge dynamic range inherent in Chucho's playing without the compression of spatial confinement.

When you combine these various ingredients, it doesn't require genius to pronounce Fantásia Cubana one of those artistic dream encounters that withstand the ravages of time, multiple exposure and commercial saturation. In short, another one of our deliberately rarely issued Blue Moon Award recipient. It signifies a true masterwork that deeply satisfies on all three important counts: Performance. Material. Recording quality.

If solo piano improvisation is your poison, consider Fantásia Cubana a choice cup of Hemlock worthy of a Socrates!