Pianist Bebo Valdes was at the center of Havana's music scene until he left Cuba in 1960. He settled in Sweden and did a lot of hotel gigs until he was rediscovered a few years ago. Now, he's universally celebrated and has a shelf full of records and Grammys. In 2005, he played a week at New York's Village Vanguard. That music is now out, and jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has a review.

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KEVIN WHITEHEAD: Bebo Valdes left Havana 50 years ago, but at the piano, he's still there. Back then, he was a modernist up on the latest American and Cuban trends, but he still loves the tunes he played when he was coming up, 1930s oldies like "Siboney," "Green Eyes," "The Peanut Vendor," and Gershwin. The old ways haunt his fingertips and piano hammers. He's not reviving anything. He just kept on doing it the old way long after music in Cuba had moved on.

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WHITEHEAD: Bebo Valdes makes the piano sing. He has the grandeur of those old keyboard showmen who had the touch and timing and confidence to pull off sweeping romantic gestures. Beyond that, he can really play.

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WHITEHEAD: On the album "Live at the Village Vanguard," Valdes shares billing with a frequent duo partner, the Spanish flamenco and jazz bassist Javier Colina. The bassist gets plenty of solo space, and likes to quote old pop and folk and jazz tunes as much as Valdes does. Colina is best in the call-and-response dialogs, where bass and piano swing each other around like dance partners.

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WHITEHEAD: A lot of jazz records get made at the Village Vanguard, as Bebo Valdes knows. He plays Bill Evans' "Waltz for Debby," recorded there in a classic version. But something happens on this Vanguard record I don't recall from any others. The Cuban standard "Bilongo" erupts into an impromptu sing-along, a spontaneous tribute to New York multiculturalism.

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WHITEHEAD: The old Cuban pianists didn't usually have an affinity for the blues, but Valdes always identified with American music, and he is a man of the world. If he makes a swinging up-tempo blues sound out of context at the Village Vanguard of all places, chalk it up to his transporting the house to another city in another time. It was as if, spending the evening in old Havana, he wanted to remind his audience he knew where he was all along.

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GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is currently on leave from teaching at the University of Kansas, and he's a jazz columnist for EMusic.com. He reviewed Bebo Valdes and Javier Colina "Live at the Village Vanguard" on the Calle 54 Label. You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org.

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