Bebo Valdés would have turned 100 years old today (Oct. 9), and we’re celebrating the Cuban pianist’s legendary inventiveness and grace by listening to the evergreen albums he recorded over his long career.
As the man behind the piano at the Club Tropicana, Valdés was at the center of Havana’s musical high in the 1950s. He performed for society as a member of Andreu Romeu’s famed orchestra, and marked his own inventive milestones as a pioneer of Cuban jazz. The pioneering musician and arranger — and leader of his own band Sabor de Cuba — found himself ahead of his time when he invented a rhythm called batanga, which spotlighted the sacred two-headed Afro-Cuban batá drums.
Valdés left Cuba at the dawn of the Cuban Revolution. Landing in Spain, he toured with the Lecuona Cuban Boys. At a concert in Sweden, he met his wife Rose Marie and settled there. He kept a low profile in a restaurant bar, obscuring his talent and reputation, until Cuban sax player Paquito D’Rivera took him back to the studio to record the 1994 album Bebo Rides Again. He would not again leave the worlds’ stages until his death in 2013. Valdés recorded a historic suite of albums with producers Fernando Trueba and Nat Chediak, which include Lágrimas Negras, his Grammy-winning collaboration with flamenco singer Diego El Cigala, and Juntos Para Siempre, a duet with his son, the acclaimed pianist Chucho Valdés.
Valdés died in 2013, leaving behind seven children and a musical dynasty continued by his grandchildren. For more about Valdés’ life and music, watch director Carlos Carcas’ definitive documentary, Old Man Bebo, available for screening on Vimeo.
In honor of Bebo Valdes’ 100th birthday, here are six must-listen albums from his incredible career:
When American jazz producer Norman Granz decided to try putting a Havana jam session on record, Bebo put it together. He goes uncredited on this rare 1952 EP on Mercury Records, which was put out under the name Andre’s All Stars. Cubano! captured a milestone avant-garde moment in Cuban music history. It includes Bebo’s improvisational classic “Con Poco Coco.”?
Released in 1959 on Panart Records, Todo Ritmo recorded Bebo’s big band jazz style on classics like “Siboney” and “Mama Inés.”
As the pianist for Armando Romeu’s Tropicana orchestra, Bebo played on Nat King Cole’s first album in Spanish, on the Capitol label. He also helped the American star sound out the Spanish lyrics he sang on the recording.
Bebo Rides Again
Bebo rode back on the scene in a big way with this historic 1994 session. Bebo Rides Again was produced by Paquito D’Rivera and features a cast of exceptional Cuban musicians, convening players who lived both in and outside of Cuba. It was recorded in Germany.
Bebo Valdés’ stirring collaboration with flamenco singer Diego el Cigala was an instant classic. 2018 marks the 15th anniversary of this essential recording.
Juntos Para Siempre
This album marked the bittersweet reunion of Bebo and his son Chucho, of Irakere fame, who had grown up in Cuba without his father. Emotion is high and playing superb on this duet recording by the two musical giants.
Chico y Rita
Valdés’ songs were featured on the soundtrack of Fernando Trueba’s Oscar-nominated feature Chico & Rita. The pianist’s life story was an inspiration for the film.
Live at the Village Vanguard
This album captures Bebo’s landmark performance at New York City’s Village Vanguard, together with bassist Javier Colina. Bebo was 90 years old at the time of this recording, a career retrospective which lovingly sums up his feeling for American swing and the rhythms of his homeland.