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First Listen: Chucho Valdés And The Afro-Cuban Messengers, 'Border-Free'

Chucho Valdés and the Afro-Cuban Messengers' new album, <em>Border-Free</em>, comes out July 9.
Chucho Valdés and the Afro-Cuban Messengers' new album, Border-Free, comes out July 9.

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Jazz fans will get the reference in the name of Chucho Valdés' quintet, The Afro-Cuban Messengers. Just as drummer Art Blakey did with various versions of his Jazz Messengers, Valdés is nurturing future generations of Afro-Cuban jazz musicians while also spreading the gospel of the music itself.

Border-Free is just what his fans have come to expect: a tight collection of songs that span the entire Cuban musical landscape and beyond. His now-famous piano runs mix Art Tatum-style controlled fireworks and Cuban pianist Ernesto Lecuona's lyrical grooves.

But to imply that Border-Free is more of the same is to miss the point: Every Valdés release digs deeper into the common roots of jazz and Cuban music. Here, the idea that New Orleans was once considered the northernmost port of Cuba makes sense; for example, the end of "Tabu" is a perfect mash-up of the jazz drum set and Afro-Cuban santeria drumming, with bluesy tenor sax from guest Branford Marsalis.

Marsalis sticks around for "Bebo," a tribute to Chucho's father, the pianist Bebo Valdés. But instead of an emotional lament — the elder Valdés died in March of this year — what we get is a melody that accurately reflects the man's infectious smile.

At more than 11 minutes, "Afro-Comanche" addresses the little-known history of the arrival of Comanches from the U.S. to eastern Cuba during the 19th century. The bata drumming and West African chanting at the end of a tune dedicated to Native Americans reflects Valdés' belief that Cubans and North Americans have more common threads than differences. In Chucho Valdés' vision, First Nation peoples that were forcibly moved to Cuba in the 19th century are celebrated with the multi-layered toques brought to the New World by West African slaves.

In other words, this is not more of the same.

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Felix Contreras is co-creator and host of Alt.Latino, NPR's pioneering radio show and podcast celebrating Latin music and culture since 2010.