Move over, Santa Claus! The guy who’s coming to town this Christmas is the great Cuban-born jazz pianist and composer Chucho Valdés with his acclaimed Royal Quartet. At Port of Spain’s National Academy for the Performing Arts (NAPA) on 16 December, he will be teaming up with Trinidad & Tobago’s brilliant jazz trumpeter Etienne Charles and friends for a seasonal celebration called Creole Christmas Gift.
Chucho Valdés, that giant of Afro-Cuban jazz, incredibly turned 82 in October. JazzTimes called him “monstrously talented and endlessly creative”. He’s a legendary innovator, mixing Afro-Cuban traditions with influences from the worlds of jazz, classical, rock, and Latin music into an unmistakable style of his own.
With a career stretching back over 60 years, and a long trail of hit albums, Valdés is the proud winner of seven Grammys and five Latin Grammys; co-founder of the famous Cuban band Irakere; a veteran bandleader as well as a virtuoso pianist; and a tireless composer and arranger. Combining his ensemble work with a parallel solo career, he’s in the midst of an eight-month European and American tour, which resumes in Miami in January.
Jazz trumpeter Etienne Charles shares the stage, with his Creole Christmas programme (Caribbean Christmas music and jazz tinged with seasonal South American influence). He’s one of the Caribbean’s most interesting musicians, and brings with him some Trinidad & Tobago stars including David “Happy” Williams, Vaughnette Bigford, and Robert Greenidge.
Charles, 40, is a composer, arranger, and percussionist as well as a celebrated jazz musician (Downbeat magazine praised his “sweet trumpet and stinging pen”). In addition to his touring and recording career, he somehow finds time to be Associate Professor of Studio Music & Jazz at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music.
His international reputation was well illustrated last year when New York’s Lincoln Center re-opened its David Geffen Hall (the old Avery Fisher Hall and home of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra) after a US$550 million renovation. The first music to be heard on opening night was Etienne’s 75-minute multimedia work San Juan Hill: A New York Story — a piece commissioned by Lincoln Center — featuring his own Creole Soul ensemble and the New York Philharmonic itself.
It was a great tribute to Etienne’s work, and — typically — it made a deep cultural connection. The old neighbourhood of San Juan Hill, full of fine grassroots musicians and Caribbean roots, once occupied the land that was cleared in the 1950s to make way for the construction of Lincoln Center. It was a location many Trinidadian musicians landed up in, making Charles feel that “It’s almost as if I’ve come full circle.”
Etienne and Chucho have been working together for several years, and have been touring Chucho’s ambitious work La Creación in Europe and North America. “I became interested in jazz in the early 2000s,” Etienne says, “and listened to Chucho Valdés and Irakere. We met in 2019 when I was touring in Miami, where Chucho lives, and I invited him and his wife and son to the show. So we met there, I visited their home, we talked about Trinidad and Cuba and La Creación.” They began to tour and perform together. “It was a very memorable experience for me as a musician and a life-long fan of Chucho Valdés and his music.”
The Port of Spain concert is being hosted by the HADCO Group, sponsors of the Phase II Pan Groove steel orchestra since 2015. The most recent addition to the group’s wide range of business interests is HADCO Experiences, which seeks to provide “bespoke vacation packages” and special experiences for locals and visitors to the country. It has already acquired and renovated the world-famous Asa Wright Nature Centre in Trinidad, and bought the Mt Plaisir Estate Hotel on the north coast, one of the best sites in the world for turtle-watching.
When news of a successful performance with Chucho in London got back to Trinidad, HADCO soon came on board, extending its menu of experiences. A live Trinidad performance by Etienne Charles and the great Chucho Valdés just seemed like the logical — and exciting — next step.