Few things are more exhilarating than the furious rhythmic conversation at the heart of the Chucho Valdes Quartet. A key progenitor of modern Latin jazz, Valdes founded the great Irakere back in the late 1960s, and in recent years this spellbinding Cuban pianist has reached dazzling new heights. His quartet–with bassist Francisco Rubio Pampin, trap drummer Raul Piñeda Roque, and percussionist Roberto Vizcaino Guillot–shifts rhythms seamlessly, infusing jazz improvisations with infectious Afro-Cuban grooves. A product of his country’s fabled musical education system, Valdes has technique to spare. Whether tackling original compositions, jazz standards, or old Cuban dance favorites, he always finds a dynamic variation. The group’s superb new album, Live at the Village Vanguard (Blue Note), proves Valdes’s leapfrogging is rarely gratuitous or show-offy: When he dips into Gershwin’s “Summertime” in “Son XXI,” nothing could seem more natural. The same goes for his tempo-shifting quotation of Thelonious Monk’s “Rhythm-a-ning” in the middle of his own “To Bud Powell.” With astonishing alacrity, the band follows Valdes’s slightest move, in sync with his every whim. The tropical takes are never cloying–they cast old workhorses in a new light. “My Funny Valentine” is transformed into an elegant danzon, while Ellington’s “Caravan” (on last year’s Briyumba Palo Congo) sizzles in the group’s rhythmic blast furnace. Valdes appears on a Latin-flavored bill that also includes the late Tito Puente’s big band with guest pianist Eddie Palmieri and congalero Jerry Gonzalez. Performing later in the evening, in a 10:30 set, will be Juan-Carlos Formell, the son of Los Van Van leader Juan Formell, who delivers an urbane, small-group take on son traditions. Saturday, 8 PM, Ravinia Festival, Green Bay and Lake Cook Rds., Highland Park; 847-266-5100. PETER MARGASAK
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Jackson.