Border-Free is a companion piece and a doubling-down on Chucho Valdés’ magnificent Chucho’s Steps album from 2010. Valdés has retained most of his Afro-Cuban Messengers (although the drummer and bassist are new, the percussionist, vocalist/bata player and trumpeter return), pays tribute once again to family members and key historical musicians and cultures, and reprises the previous album’s virtuosic hopping and condensing of genres.
But where Chucho’s Steps included a dedication to Chucho’s son, Julian, Border-Free includes tributes to his grandmother (“Caridad Amaro,” which concludes with an excerpt from a Rachmaninoff concerto she liked); his mother (“Pilar,” which interpolates compositions from Bach and Miles Davis that she favored); and his famous, recently departed father, Bebo Valdés (“Bebo,” which, despite the small ensemble, evokes Bebo’s Sabor de Cuba Orchestra from the ’50s).
While Chucho’s Steps featured an overt tribute to the Marsalis family, Border-Free actually brings saxophonist Branford Marsalis onboard for three songs, an inspired addition that bears fruit within the ’50s Cuban ambiance of the Bebo homage and the Afro-Arabic gnawa music of “Abdel.” As its title implies, Border-Free also ups the ante in terms of genre hopping and swapping. Along with the aforementioned forays into Euro-classical, Arab, old-style Cuban and postbop stylings, the centerpiece of the record is the 12-minute “Afro-Comanche,” featuring percussion and chants and dedicated to the mixed heritage Cuban offspring of the Comanches who were deported to the island in the 19th century.
But above all, Border-Free, like Chucho’s Steps, is carried forth on the crests of Valdes’ piano. The notes pour out like a force of nature, conjuring the nightclub and the conservatory, bop and clave, concerto and danzón via heart, hands and soul. The opening number, “Congadanza,” is the musical equivalent of a waterfall kicking up a rainbow in its mist. At 71, he’s found another gear these past two records.