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Chucho Valdés and The Afro-Cuban Messengers: Border-Free

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The connotation of the music of Chucho Valdés being Border-Free, from soul to finger-tips, is that idiom and metaphor melt—one into the other—and that lines are blurred; so much so that the imagery and sound of musical topography of continents merge in a singular, beautiful song. In Spanish the title of this record is Sin Fronteras–without frontier, almost as if the sound, the image… and the very narrative of the music has no frontier or boundary. Indeed the music of this album embodies all this and more: in each series of imaginative ensemble or solo playing Mr. Valdés’s music seems to exist outside of time and place. Not only is he picking up and developing it from Chucho’s Steps, but also from this album’s great forebears, Lucumi (Timba, 1975) and Briyumba Palo Congo (Blue Note, 1999)… and, of course, everything he has ever played—especially the wonderful music of Irakere.

Album cover - Chucho Valdes & The Afro-Cuban Jazz Messengers: Border-Free
Album cover – Chucho Valdes & The Afro-Cuban Jazz Messengers: Border-Free

The truth is that Chucho Valdés may appear to play music in a fluid, almost unconscious manner, thanks to an unbridled virtuosity. But in actual fact every note is thought out by his quick-thinking, jaguar-like musical intellect. He actually chooses his notes and sequences them in phrases and lines with an exactitude that resembles something between art and science; music and math. It is almost as if the great ancestors of the piano—such as the great Thelonious Monk and the pianist’s own maestro-father, Bebo Valdés came together in the instant the notes of the music were conceived and collided with the lineages of the batá drummers; the rhythm griots of the African continent. And now, it seems, in the music of the entranced drummers and dancers of the First Nations of the Americas as well. Chucho Valdés conceives music as it exists and streams through the cosmos. His piano roars and swirls in great elliptical measures. Then it seems to come to rest again, only to leap from one plane to another, dodging in and out of all three visible dimensions into the spectral realm where all music since as long as memories can discern comes together in a swinging phrase; or a thunderous arpeggio, or in a gloriously hammered fistful of notes. All the time his fingers and hands never seem to leave the keyboard and only rarely does he stop playing as if to give another voice a chance to chant or sing or speak.

The mighty melodic attack of “Conga-Danza” is a challenge not only to the mind’s ear, but also to the heart. Its rhythm unfolds with a spectacular ensemble first sequence, and then roars through a solo piano mid-section, before exploding in a percussion-driven that Mr. Valdés uses to bring the song to a spectacular close with shimmering runs and arpeggios. His monumental chart, “Afro-Comanche” seems to develop out of this narrative into a larger, diaphanous one that embraces the rhythm and hidden culture of the First Nations who settled in Cuba as a result of being banished from traditional lands in the United States. There is a sublime understanding here of pain and how that turned to joy when those Comanche blended into Afro-Cuban culture and this is splendidly echoed in the music of this song. The beautiful and primordial chants and voices of the chorus gives breath to the plaintive invocation to the Santeria pantheon.

There is a broad glimpse into the heart and soul of Chucho Valdés that shows his tender human nature shining through. His achingly elegiac music—from the classic “Caridad Amaro” and the absolutely inimitable music of “Bebo” culminates in the breathtakingly exquisite “Pilar,” a tribute to the lonely stoicism of his mother—is quite beyond beautiful. It is a matchless document to the genius of Mr. Valdés that seems to be absolutely timeless. The sensational harmonics of “Pilar” are graced, in no small measure, by the superb arco work of the young bassist Ángel Gastón Joya Perellada. His outstanding composure, wonderful sense of harmony and complete and rapturous embrace of the melancholic beauty of the song is unprecedented. But the bassist also solos with complete command of structure, melodicism and harmonic brilliance on other charts too, throughout the album. His rhapsodic solo on “Caridad Amaro” is quite unforgettable.

There is another magnificent aspect of the album that echoes throughout the music and that is the absolutely superb percussionists that play in such memorable harmony that they display a quite unique level of empathy with each other as well as with the bass and the lead voice—the piano. This is especially evident on “Conga-Danza,” “Afro-Comanche” and on the brilliantly conceived and Middle-Eastern inflections of “Abdel”. The presence of Branford Marsalis on this chart and his exquisite wailing soprano saxophone solo is most striking. Of course it would be remiss not to acknowledge Mr. Marsalis’ tenor saxophone soli on “Tabú” and “Bebo” as well; nor would it be appropriate not to recognise the mighty harmonics of trumpeter Reinaldo Melián Alvarez. But it is the towering personality and musicianship of Chucho Valdés that gives this record its unique and enduring character for years to come.


Tracks – Conga-danza; Caridad Amaro; Tabú; Bebo; Afro-Comanche; Pilar; Santa Cruz; Abdel.

Personnel – Chucho Valdés: piano; Reinaldo Melián Alvarez: trumpet; Dreiser Durruthy Bombalé: bata, lead vocals; Rodney Barreto Illarza: drums, vocals; Ángel Gastón Joya Perellada: double bass, vocals; Yaroldy Abreu Robles: percussion, vocals; Branford Marsalis: tenor saxophone (3, 4), soprano saxophone (8).

Released – 2013
Label – Jazz Village
Runtime – 1:00:10

Based in Milton, Ontario, Canada, Raul is a poet, musician and an accomplished critic whose profound analysis is reinforced by his deep understanding of music, technically as well as historically.

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Adrien Brandeis: Siempre Más Allá

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Roberto Jr. Vizcaino, Adrien Brandeis, Roberto Vizcaino Guillot - Photo Nayeli Mejia
Roberto Vizcaíno Jr., Adrien Brandeis, Roberto Vizcaíno Guillot - Photo: Nayeli Mejia.

Listening to the music of Siempre Más Allá, it certainly seems that the young French pianist, Adrien Brandeis has strengthened the belief that he is a proverbial citizen of the Afro-Caribbean universe. To be clear Mr Brandeis still loves all music and swings as hard as any pianist who loves Black American Music – that is, music that you can sing and dance to. But also continues to be beguiled by the rolling thunder of Afro-Caribbean music. The wild call of the rhythms and the joie de vivre of the questing melodies and harmonies not only appeal to his ear, but also speak to him in the hidden parts of his heart.

By his own admission Siempre Más Allá took root during three tours to Mexico undertaken under the aegis of the Fédération des Alliances Françaises du Mexique. The virtually all-Afro-Cuban repertoire of the album radiates charm at every turn. These disarmingly natural and eloquent performances bring out the music’s inherent drama and penchant for tumbao with a deft touch while indulging Brandeis’ lyrical instincts to the full. Meticulously balanced, the four quartet pieces, the trio and duo pieces feel as if they are chamber works. Brandeis’ astonishingly insightful playing is musically captivating and technically blemishless. Each phrase rings so completely true that one can’t imagine the music played any other way.

Adrien Brandeis: Siempre Más Allá
Adrien Brandeis: Siempre Más Allá

The album features Mr Brandeis and a group of very accomplished musicians. These include the celebrated Cuban percussionist Roberto Vizcaíno Guillot [on two tracks] and his son Roberto Vizcaíno Jr., Mexican drummer José Loria Triay make up the wall of percussion. The Brasilian bassist Giliard Lopes brings his distinctive veritas to the whole rhythm section. The big surprise here is, perhaps, the presence of the great Cuban Horacio “El Negro” Hernández sitting in the drum chair on La buena vibra.

Siempre Más Allá is an affirmation of Brandeis’ enduring love and natural affinity for Latin music. Not surprisingly the music seems to echo the famous Latin American phrase: “¡Que rico bailo yo!” [which, in English, exclaims: “How well I dance!”]. This is no hyperbole as the music – in its pulses and rhythms show as Brandeis traverses the rhythmic topography of the Caribbean and Latin America. Along the way Brandeis plunged into the world of changüí, the chacarera, Brasilian gaucho music and the ancient melodic thunder of bàtá drums.

From the get-go listeners will find themselves immersed in quite another world of rippling percussive grooves. The track Ek Bakam, for instance, conjures the intricate architecture; the line and flow of an epic Mayan civilisation located in the Yucatan. Narratives from the Latin world abound – often paying homage to famous traditional musicians. Pancho’s Power is one such chart inspired by the vivid world of the legendary trio Los Panchos. Brandeis gives his percussion section a lot of space when he puts the spotlight on them on Tierra de Oportunidades – a wistful memory of the pianist’s three tours to Mexico, which is also incidentally the popular provincial slogan of the Mexican state of Guanajuato. On Huachi-Huachi Brandeis digs deep into the epicurean delights of the only Latin country in North America with this song in praise of a kind of gourmet Mexican fish: the huachinango.

Brandeis then celebrates his association with percussion colourist Roberto Vizcaíno Jr. with the extraordinary music of Vizcaíno Blues, a piece unique with its exploratory chromaticisms and elegant sonorities that beautifully capture the eloquence of the percussionist in whose praise the music is written. Mindful of the fact that Vizcaíno is Cuban but makes his home in Mexico, Brandeis shapes the rhythmic and harmonic palette of the piece accordingly. On La Buena Vibra Brandeis delivers astonishing pianistic fireworks in the piece’s melodic and harmonic lines, played at a frenetic pace, to mirror the style of its dedicatee, Michel Camilo. The pianist demonstrates an authentic home-grown grasp of Cuban music as he reimages Voy a Apagar la Luz, by the legendary and late-singer Armando Manzanero, here adapted as a wistful solo piano work. Meanwhile on the dizzying ride of Humpty Dumpty the pianist pays homage to another idol: Chick Corea, by revisiting the sparkling composition of the recently-deceased piano maestro.

It is hard not to be mesmerised by this spirited and finely nuanced music artfully crafted in an album by Adrien Brandeis, a pianist who is about to take the world by storm with a recording that is going to be one of the finest by any musician located outside the Latin American sub-continent.

Deo gratis…

Tracks – 1: Huachi Huachi; 2: Alegría; 3: Pancho’s Power; 4: Ek balam; 5: Un peu d’espoir; 6: Vizcaíno’s Blues; 7: Tierra de oportunidades; 8: Humpty Dumpty; 9: La buena vibra; 10: Voy a apagar la luz

Musicians – Adrien Brandeis: piano; Giliard Lopes: contrabass; José Loria Triay: drums; Roberto Vizcaíno Jr: congas and bàtá drums. Featuring Roberto Vizcaíno Guillot: percussion [1, 6]; Horacio “El Negro” Hernández: drums [9]

Released – 2022
Label – Mantodea Music Productions
Runtime – 58:25

YouTube Video – Adrien Brandeis – Siempre más allá (EPK)

YouTube Audio – Adrien Brandeis – Vizcaíno’s Blues

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