Bringing the Cuban Fire: We hit the high notes with jazz trumpeter Miguelito Valdés

By David Lennam   |   Photo by Michelle Proctor

Maybe you’ve watched him on his horn, fronting his band at the Bard & Banker, rattling the bar glass with those way-off-the-scale high notes, gigging as a full-time member of the Naden Band, sitting in with other musicians at Hermann’s Jazz Club, touring with the Afro-Cuban All Stars. And you might have wondered: Just who is this Miguelito Angel Valdés, and how did he get here?

In a tiny, isolated nation that has, arguably, produced more great trumpet players than anywhere else, Cuba’s Miguelito Valdés is recognized as one of the great talents of his generation. But he’s hardly recognized at all — outside of the music community — in Victoria, where he’s lived and performed for the past decade.

Good-humoured and way past humble, the amiable 48-year-old laughs off his incognito superpower. Despite being — and we’ll get to this — world famous, he goes about his business here as just another guy with a trumpet and a thick accent. He tells me sometimes patrons at his weekly Bard & Banker nights will Google his name during a set, then approach him, blown away by what they’ve discovered.

“They’ll say, ‘Man, you play with this guy and you play with that. Amazing.’ ”

Rhythm of the Streets

Amazing just begins to describe his CV. Valdés toured with the Buena Vista Social Club, has played on dozens of recordings (he says he’s lost track of how many); gigged with Michael Brecker, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter; jammed with Wynton Marsalis and Roy Hargrove; and is heard backing up Sting, U2 and Coldplay on a disc entitled Rhythms del Mundo.

More Arturo Sandoval than Miles Davis, Valdés will blow notes in whatever style is on the charts: big band swing, hard bop jazz, merengue, salsa, timba, backing vocalists, leading his own combos, teaching others all the tricks. But it’s traditional Cuban music that makes him sweat like a Caribbean summer night.

Growing up in Havana, he explains, a youngster decides very early to specialize in music.

Although he wanted to be a percussionist, Valdés started playing trumpet at a special school for aspiring musicians at age 11. The music taught in school was all classical.

“They didn’t teach you how to play jazz or Cuban music. You had to learn everything else on the street. You had to go out there and do it,” he says.

It was outside the classroom he learned how to listen and repeat what he heard.

“I say that to all my students, if they have any interest in learning how to improvise,” he says. “There’s the way to do it with theory, learning scales and chords, but when you speak a language, you learn the grammar, how to read and write, but what about the social part of that language? You don’t learn by books. You have to interact. So, the same thing with music, interact when you’re listening to the notes. That’s the way you learn the language.”

“Was it easier than learning English?” I ask.

“A lot easier. I’m never going to be able to learn English,” he says with a still-heavy accent.

A musician’s musician with a concertmaster’s knowledge of the craft and a rare ability to go off script and own the tune, his virtuoso improvising got him a four-year run with the 40-piece band at the Tropicana, literally the show in Havana. And that led directly to the Buena Vista Social Club.

Valdés spent the next six years touring the world with Omara Portuondo, one of the original vocalists with Buena Vista. It was from her that he learned to read the room, change it up, tweak his performance to please the crowd. It’s something he still does at his Bard & Banker nights. “I make people feel welcome, like, here’s a show for you to enjoy. If you’re not enjoying it, I’m trying to fix it.”

His sometime bandmate, Victoria drummer Kelby MacNayr, speaks highly of his favourite trumpeter. “Miguelito always brings the fire,” MacNayr says. “All his virtuosity and incredible musicianship and trumpet mastery is in service of that connection between the performer and the audience, that shared human spirit.”

A Complete Musician

When Valdés and his piano-playing wife decided to make Canada their new home in 2006, he didn’t realize he’d struggle as a musician. He took jobs like painting buildings.

“I didn’t know anybody, didn’t speak English,” he recalls. “Oh my God, what have I done coming from travelling all over the world? I thought this is the end of my life, I’m done. Then I start walking around with my trumpet, got introduced to a few people and started playing blues, a lot of blues, casinos, The Yale [Saloon in Vancouver], all those places.”

Valdés managed to finagle a teaching job at Long & McQuade in Vancouver. They asked if he could teach any other instruments. “I said, yeah, all the horns. I didn’t know how to play tuba, trombone, euphonium, French horn. You give me a horn, give me a week and I’ll be back.”

One day, Tom Landa, leader of the Vancouver-based, Juno Award-winning folk band The Paperboys, showed up to learn the trumpet. Valdés worked with him for three weeks but Landa was hopeless.

“He couldn’t [play]. I said, ‘Tom, c’mon man, forget it.’ I didn’t know who he was. He said to me, ‘Hey, would you like to join my band?’ and I say, ‘Well, if your band plays like the way you play the trumpet, forget about it.’ ”

Six years later, Valdés joined the Royal Canadian Navy as a petty officer 2nd class, just so he could get into the prestigious, Victoria-based Naden Band.

Saxophonist Roy Styffe auditioned at the same time as Valdés and they’ve shared the spotlight for the past 10 years. Styffe calls the trumpeter incredibly gifted and a complete musician.

“He has a great ear and can hear the chord changes to a song after one listen. He also has a great time feel because of his ability as a conga player and percussionist.”

For Valdés, the worldwide appeal of that Cuban sound — emotion that translates into rhythm —
is something that gets inside your bones.

“I don’t know what it is; it’s kind of magic,” he says. “It makes everybody move, man.”