CD review: Playing Lecuona Featuring Chucho Valdés, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Michel Camilo

This exceptional project, which combines a beautifully played and recorded CD with a stellar documentary both called ‘Playing Lecuona’, sets the record straight and restores his reputation as a prodigious talent as well as a pioneer who formed part of the artistic generation searching for Cuban identity in their work throughout the 1920’s and 30’s.

Having graduated from the national conservatory in Havana at the tender age of 16, he set about tirelessly popularising Cuban music: creating an internationally successful piano roll company alongside playing international recitals and composing over 600 pieces, every one of which explored Cuban themes. He even gave his name to a popular touring band which pared down his music to appeal to a nightclub crowd. His worldwide hit ‘Siempre en Mi Corazón’ , which is featured here in a glorious rendition by the eternal Omara Portuondo, only missed out on a Grammy as it was up against ‘White Christmas’.

Such is Lecuona’s influence that Cuban musicians of the calibre of Chucho Valdés, his AfroCuban Messengers and Gonzalo Rubalcaba, the Spanish superstars Esperanza Fernandez, Ana Belen and the flamenco guitarist Raimundo Amador along with the exceptional jazz/ classical pianist from the Dominican Republic Michel Camilo, were instantly convinced to contribute to the film and CD. Chucho even insisted that sessions take place in his house with the use of his father’s treasured 1955 Steinway grand piano.

The jazz-tinged singing and playing throughout this album is magical, and the choice of music from every area of Lecuona’s career means that the CD is an absolute treat to listen to, especially on tracks such as Danza de los Nañigos where Chucho combines to stunning effect with the Afro Rumba group Muñequitos de Matanzas, along with the combination of flamenco and Cuban dance ‘Andalucia’ which features Raimundo and Rubalcaba both on top form.

Despite Lecuona living his last few years in the US, his works are still required study at the island’s music schools. This project rightfully places Ernesto Lecuona as an icon of Cuban culture as well as providing a highly enjoyable listening journey.

By Dave Willetts for CubaSi Autumn 2017

CD: Playing Lecuona (2016, Okeh Records) Featuring Chucho Valdés, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Michel Camilo

Buy here