Chucho Valdés and Afro-Cuban Messengers ‘Border Free’ (Jazz Village/Harmonia Mundi) 4/5

Veteran pianist and founder member of pioneering Cuban group Irakere, Chucho Valdés has established an international reputation as an outstanding leader and composer, but from the 1990s onwards has increasingly turned inwards towards his own career and for a long time was an artist on the prestigious Blue Note label. Now signed to Harmonia Mundi’s Jazz Village off shoot label, Valdés has surrounded himself with some top new musicians and a few choice guest musicians including saxophonist Branford Marsalis. The repertoire is firmly in the Afro-Cuban jazz groove and the pianist excels in this idiom. With eight lengthy pieces averaging out at some nine minutes per number, there is ample opportunity for the individual band members to shine, not least the leader himself. For those unfamiliar with his style, Chucho Valdés belongs very much to the McCoy Tyner School of jazz piano playing and that means glorious modal piano vamps in abundance. A distinctive Spanish tinge is present on the Jazz Messengers flavoured piece ‘Tabù’ which has a delightful Afro-Cuban backdrop in the use of percussion features some tasty trumpet and tenor saxophone playing from Reinaldo Melian Alavarez and Branford Marsalis respectively. For no-holds barred Afro-Cuban jazz, look no further than the frenetic opener to the album which features elongated piano vamps from the leader some interesting changes in tempo. The virtuoso skills of Valdés are very much in evidence here. For all his potential power, Valdés is best heard here on the gentler piece such as the melodic ballad ‘Caridad amaro’ which has something of a pop tune immediacy to it and this merely underlines what a fine composer Valdés has become over time. A fitting tribute to Valdés’ father who performed well into his nineties comes in the form of ‘Bebo’ and is a mid-paced number with attractive collective horns. Tim Stenhouse