Border-Free, the title of the new album from Cuban jazz pianist Chucho Valdés and The Afro-Cuban Messengers, is a metaphor for the artist’s musical aesthetic. A border defines a limit. To be borderless suggests freedom without limits. Too often when a musician is identified with a particular musical genre, it boxes him in, limiting his possibilities. While Valdés may be associated with a specific genre, that association need not keep him from exploring the whole range of musical expression. Border-Free is Afro-Cuban jazz, but it is Afro-Cuban without borders.
Valdés does plenty of coloring outside the lines in the eight compositions, seven of which are originals, that make up the album. In one he can be quoting Rachmaninoff, in another a native chant. In one he can be working with a flamenco melody, in another with Moroccan rhythms. Allusions to Bach’s Preludes and Fugues mix with reference to Miles Davis’ “Blue in Green.” This is border-free music. Valdés seems willing to go wherever inspiration takes him. What can be more empowering for a jazz musician?
The album opens with an initial acknowledgement to his Cuban roots with the lively “Congadanza” dedicated, he tells us, to the daughter of Cuban composer Ignacio Cervantes. But even in this very first piece there are quiet introspective moments. This is followed by the sweetly tender “Caridad Amaro,” written for his grandmother who (he tells us in the liner notes) liked to hear him play the Rachmaninoff piano concerto. For good measure he throws in a little piece of it at the end.
Branford Marsalis guests on tenor sax on “Tabu” and “Bebo.” He takes up soprano for the album’s final number, the exotic “Abdel,” with its Moroccan-rooted rhythms. His solo to end the piece is right out of the desert. There is also an interesting double bass solo from Gaston Joya and Valdés’ work on piano is intense. Bach and Miles meet in “Pilar,” a tune for his mother (who was fond of both).
“Afro-Comanche,” the longest piece on the album, refers to the deportation of a group of Comanche Indians to Cuba in the 19th century where they met with locals and started families. Their children were called Afro-Comanches. The flamenco influence is developed in Valdés’ 1986 composition, “Santa Cruz.”
Border-Free is an album that makes one thing clear. No matter what ingredients Chucho Valdés mixes together, Afro-Cuban, classical, or modern jazz, in the end you get one great meal.