Imagine you grew up in Havana in the 1950s, and the Tropicana–the world’s hottest nightclub, where your father played piano for Beny Moré and Dizzy Gillespie–was your kindergarten. That’s a crazily idyllic scene from the real life childhood of Chucho Valdes, the Cuban piano genius who graced the Hill Hall stage in Chapel Hill on Feb. 12.

Father Bebo Valdes (no slouch on the keys himself) emigrated when Castro came to power, but Chucho, then 16, started his own band and built a musical career in Cuba. In the ’70s the younger Valdes smuggled jazz under the revolutionary radar, with fellow cats Arturo Sandoval and Paquito D’Rivera, in the fusion group Irakere.

Besides his father, Chucho’s early role models included pianist Ernesto Lecuona, the classical composer of delicate vignettes like “Noche Azul” and “Siboney” that have become standards of the Afro-Cuban repertoire. Yet, while similar in stature, these two giants of the Cuban piano could hardly be more different in their choice of atmospherics: Where Lecuona was a zephyr, Valdes is a hurricane.

After last year’s visa delay, the postponed UNC concert came to fruition on a chilly Wednesday night, with three brilliant young Afro-Cuban musicians sharing the stage with Valdes. Valdes, maintaining his great syncretism of Cubanidad and jazz, was in great form all night, leading off with an altered yet recognizable version of “Cumbanchero.” The maestro commanded with velvet discipline, conducting dynamic changes from behind his Steinway with looks and hand gestures. The top-class ensemble turned on a dime, and the musicians each had their chance to wow the audience with their individual skill level. Powerful conguero Yaroldy Abreu-Roble sat center stage, surrounded by Valdes, bassist Lazaro “El Fino” Rivero, and a sensitive trapset drummer [whose name was unavailable at press time]. During the night’s most playful moment, Yaroldy slapped his own cheeks, turning his open mouth into a talking drum, while Valdes tinkered with the innards of the piano, as the two exchanged talkback solo riffs.

In the course of one song, Valdes transitioned from Schubertian lyricism to a Ramsey Lewis-esque gospel blues, begging the question: Is there anything this man can’t do? It’s a sign of his genius–not a term to cast around lightly–that he can journey across genres so masterfully, while giving each his unmistakable sonic imprimatur.

Another sign of Chucho Valdes’ genius: While he’s clearly conquered the limits of the modern instrument, he doesn’t seem to have reached his own, either technically or imaginatively. If piano keyboards grew by two octaves tomorrow, he’d probably find it a gas. If they grew four octaves, he’d probably begin to find it an interesting challenge. For the listener, the adventure is to hear so many notes in the course of a few hours, yet come away with senses strangely refreshed.

Chucho’s sister, the tremendous singer Mayra Caridad Valdes, emerged from the wings midway through the evening to sing a few classic lullabies and boleros from her own discography, like “Besame Mucho,” and “Drume Negrita.” At one point coaxing brother Chucho from his bench to engage her in some dance steps, for the last encore she had the whole audience dancing in place like backup singers. In between, she scatted us into comedic oblivion, and corrected our clave as we clapped the syncopated heartbeat of son. Clearly, an easy rapport with an audience comes as naturally to the Valdes siblings as musical ability.

In the second part of the program, there was a McCoy Tyner riff or two amid Chucho’s finger flying improvisations, bringing an audible rise of recognition from the evening’s jazz fans–fittingly so since Valdes has cited Tyner as one of his main American influences. Staying just as close to his Afro-Cuban roots, he did a praise-song to the Lucumi orisha Elegua. Listeners steeped in the music of Santeria sang along, and delight broke out as the musicians took it full tilt, busting out the ritual combination of three chekeres (bead-skirted hollow gourds) as Sr. Valdes struck the cowbell.

Audio feedback and the uneven sound quality in the vintage hall caused some minor hassles for crowd and quartet alike, but with all the fits and starts of international touring these days, it wasn’t an evening for nitpicking. Both Valdes, and bassist Rivero, in backstage conversation, seemed unphased by visa delays. But, as Rivero “El Fino” (“the thin one”) referenced in passing, the Bush administration’s recent policies have created uncertainty for the band’s touring schedule, in addition to the global economic and geopolitical anxieties they have triggered.

“We want to come back and play the West Coast next month,” said Rivero (in Spanish), who also plays bass with flutist and arranger Orlando “Maraca” Valle. “If,” he adds after a pause, “there’s no war.”

“I hope not,” Rivero says. “That’s why our work of cultural exchange is very important.” And, he notes appreciatively, “The audiences here are tremendous.”

Nice to know that feeling is mutual. EndBlock

E-mail to contact Sylvia Pfeiffenberger.