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New Jersey “Best-Kept Secret” Hosts the Soul of Cuban Piano

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Group Photo The Soul of Cuban Piano Oskar Schindler Performing Arts Center July 7, 2014

The Oskar Schindler Performing Arts Center presents
The Soul of Cuban Piano
featuring Pianists, Aruan Ortiz, Manuel Varela, Chuchito Valdes

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 aka 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 is a bring your lawn chair and blanket affair, and the setting couldn’t be lovelier, an open-air stage and a pristine grassy knoll a stone’s throw from Crystal Lake that lends its self to enjoying music while communing with nature.

I arrived just as the Maestros were warming up and familiarizing themselves with 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 quite 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. In all, the set was cerebral with a quiet intensity and above all, riveting.

Over the years, I’ve seen pianist, composer Manuel Valera perform in multiple setting however this performance marks the first time I saw him 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. Suffice it to say Valera exceeded my expectations.

Onstage, Chuchito Valdes lets his fingers do the talking, and they speak volumes. Stylistically, he is flamboyant and occasionally over the top, but he is as comfortable with a raucous version of Mambo Influenciado as he is with a lyrical Cuban Danzon. His compositions draw on a broad range of classic and harmonic structural techniques and reflect many styles, including Afro-Cuban Jazz, Latin Jazz, Bebop, Danzon, Cha Cha and Son Montuno among others. Chuchito’s set closed with a well-deserved standing ovation and encore.

Some years ago I spoke with Chuchito at the Jazz Gallery. Given the fact that he rarely speaks to the audience 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 and a rare opportunity to see three living 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, John Beasley, a tribute to the late, great Mulgrew Miller, Geri Allen, and The Cookers among others.

I urge readers to come out and support OSPAC, and The Roots + Ribs Music and Food Festival.

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION VISIT: WWW.NJAI.ORG

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