Chucho Valdés, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, and Michel Camilo are three of the greatest Caribbean jazz pianists (Valdés and Rubalcaba are from Cuba, Camilo is from the Dominican Republic). Ernesto Lecuona was arguably Cuban’s greatest composer, considered the George Gershwin of that island nation. He passed away in 1963 but not before leaving an incredible legacy of songs informed by his Cuban and Spanish heritage.
So it was a treat to hear all three pay tribute to Lecuona last night at SFJazz. They marveled at the composer’s technically challenging pieces, with Camilo and Rubacalba referencing Lecuona’s “big left hand” that required them to “split their brain in half” to play the Cuban rhythms on the left with the Spanish classical-infused melodies on the right. Indeed, Camilo in particular seemed tripped up at times on his solo pieces, although his rapid-fire chops dazzled the crowd at turns.
In terms of format, they alternated between solo and duo performances, with a finale as a trio. Camilo began solo for two pieces (“San Francisco El Grande” and “La Negra Bailaba”), then invited Rubacalba on stage to join him for a few songs, including “Danza Lucumi.” Camilo then left for Rubacalba to solo for a few. Valdés then joined Rubacalba for a final song before intermission.
Valdés started the second half solo, with his virtuosity inspiring repeated standing ovations from the crowd. He then invited Camilo back out for some joint performances. Rubacalba completed the trio for a roaring finale, punctuated by an encore with all three masters seated at a makeshift bench on one piano.
For those unable to attend the show, all three composers are featured in the documentary “Playing Lecuona” (trailer above), which gives you a flavor of what transpired last night and will continue through this weekend at SFJazz.