- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 5, 2003

One of the great joys of Latin jazz is that it has never lost its connection to the dance rhythms that gave it shape. This was on wonderful display Thursday night when spectacular Cuban pianist Chucho Valdes took the stage at Lisner Auditorium. It's a pity the show wasn't in a ballroom.
Mr. Valdes began by performing several numbers with his rhythm section alone, including a treatment of "You Don't Know What Love Is" that began with rich, melancholy chords. Soon Mr. Valdes unleashed dazzling runs worthy of Art Tatum, creating great contrasts of fire and delicacy. As the song evolved and built momentum, Mr. Valdes, with subtle gestures and nods, moved his band through a succession of Cuban dance grooves.
The essential dance quality of the music became even more explicit when Mr. Valdes brought out vocalist Mayra Caridad Valdes Rodriguez, whose relentless footwork was as entertaining as her playful singing. Soon Mr. Valdes was up from the keyboard to dance with her. It was clear that many in the audience would have liked to jump up and join them.
The acid test, though, came when the guest stars of the show made their way onstage. Mr. Valdes was joined by noted trumpeter Roy Hargrove and saxophonist David Sanchez. Each was first given a solo ballad feature, but then it was back to the groove. It was then that something surprising and refreshing happened.
But first, a little context: Once upon a time, jazz musicians were entertainers. Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton weren't just among the most important artists in jazz, they also were great showmen. Mr. Armstrong worked the crowd with his smile, Mr. Ellington wowed them with flying hands, and Mr. Hampton was known to leap onto a tom-tom drum and dance if that was what was needed to produce a frenzy. In today's more serious, academic school of jazz, such things are just not done. All too often, jazz musicians are so subdued onstage as to appear bored by the whole endeavor.
Not so Roy Hargrove and David Sanchez. What a treat it was to watch Mr. Hargrove watch Mr. Sanchez solo. He found himself moving to the dance rhythms and let himself flow with them. Nothing contrived or showy just an honest expression of the music. Such demonstrative enthusiasm didn't distract from Mr. Sanchez's intense improvisation. If anything, it added to the excitement.
Nor did it distract from Mr. Hargrove's own playing, which was thoughtful and lyrical. Over the churning beat, Mr. Hargrove crafted wonderfully melodic solos. One could tell that Mr. Hargrove would have loved to stretch some of his improvised lines up an extra octave or so but was cut short because he lacks the searing high range for which Cuban trumpeters are famous. Mr. Hargrove compensated for his lack of extended range with other virtues, such as the rich butterscotch sound he produced on both fluegelhorn and trumpet.
With Mr. Valdes at the piano, jazz music is still very much dance music. One hopes the next time he comes to town the venue has a dance floor.
Eric Felten is a jazz musician and writer in the District.

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