While seeking an event to put the finishing touch on the July 4th weekend, I came across an ad for the Oskar Schindler Performing Arts Center (OSPAC) titled “The Soul of Cuban Piano” featuring pianists Chuchito Valdes, Manuel Valera, and Aruan Ortiz. The event is part of OSPAC’S Roots + Ribs Music and Food Festival, which runs through September 1st.
The series, a bring-your-lawn chair and blanket affair could not be lovelier. An open-air stage and a pristine grassy knoll a stone’s throw from Crystal Lake lends itself to enjoying music and communing with nature.
I arrived just as the Maestros were warming up on a beautiful, ornate Fazioli grand piano.
Shortly after that, WBGO radio show host and MC Gary Walker introduced Aruan Ortiz, a critically acclaimed pianist, composer, producer, and educator who has been making a name for himself locally and internationally since he arrived from Cuba in 2008.
Ortiz’ set encompassed his Cuban roots, contemporary classical music, improvisation, and what he describes as “an architecture of sounds.” The repertoire included Thelonious Monk’s arrangement of Duke Ellington’s Black and Tan Fantasy, an excerpt from an upcoming suite based on the folkloric musical expressions of Santiago de Cuba titled Callejuela Izuama and his arrangement of the tune, Alone Together. The set was cerebral with a quiet intensity and riveting.
Over the years, I’ve seen pianist and composer Manuel Valera perform in multiple settings; however, this was the first time I saw the Cuban virtuoso fly without a net. Valera played three tunes from his most recent recording titled, Self Portrait: A Latinized (Cubanized) interpretation of Thelonious Monk’s Ask Me Now, the classic Cuban bolero, Las Perlas de tu Boca and variations on George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess but the highlight of the evening was his interpretation of Horace Silver’s Song for My Father. Valera’s set exceeded my expectations.
Chuchito Valdes lets his fingers do the talking onstage, and they speak volumes. Stylistically, he is flamboyant, but he is as comfortable with a raucous version of Mambo Influenciado as he is with a lyrical Cuban Danzon. His compositions draw on classic and harmonic structural techniques and reflect many styles, including Afro-Cuban Jazz, Latin Jazz, Bebop, Danzon, Cha Cha, and Son Montuno. Chuchito’s set closed with a well-deserved standing ovation and encore.
Some years ago, I caught up with Chuchito at the Jazz Gallery. Because he rarely speaks to the audience or announces a song, I was curious to know what goes through his mind during a performance. “It’s emotional,” said he, “I think of my wife, my family, my children.”
The event was a crowd-pleaser on every level. Also, a rare opportunity to see three Maestros on the same stage.
OSPAC is on a mission to create an environment where artists, developing artists, and aspiring artists of all socio-economic and cultural origins from the Essex County area can explore, create and communicate their craft in a supportive and nurturing environment.
Upcoming performances include The Lionel Loueke Trio, Frank Kimbrough, and John Beasley, a tribute to the late great Mulgrew Miller, Geri Allen, and The Cookers.
I urge music lovers to support OSPAC and The Roots + Ribs Music and Food Festival.
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