Latin jazz legend Chucho Valdes catches up with BRAG’sMarissa Demetriou ahead of his gig with the Afro-Cuban Messengers at Sydney Opera House.

Tell us a little about the title of your new album Border-Free

It’s meant literally – it suggests there are no borders in the music. In a world of limitless musical possibilities, the album goes beyond borders, freely exploring all kinds of influences from Algeria to Spain, from Africa to Arabia.

How does it differ from 2011’s Chucho’s Steps? Did you take a different approach with this record?

Basically, I’m continually expanding on and exploring new genres and taking on other people’s influences. Chucho’s Steps was a tribute to musicians that I admire – the late Joe Zawinul in ‘Zawinul’s Mambo’, the Marsalis family in ‘New Orleans’, and John Coltrane in ‘Chucho’s Steps’. Musically it drew on Afro–Cuban music and hard bop, and taps into the spiritual essence of Latin folkloric music.

On Border-Free, the music is still Afro-Cuban and jazz, but I introduce many other styles including flamenco, North African (Algerian and Moroccan) folkloric music, and reference classical composers such as Bach, Rachmaninoff and Chopin.

Historically, ever since the arrival of Christopher Columbus, Cuba has been a multi-ethnic colonial melting pot with Arabic, Spanish and African influences. The track ‘Afro-Comanche’ refers to a little known episode in the history of Cuba. In the late nineteenth century, 700 Comanche Indians were deported from the U.S. to Cuba, where they mixed with Afro-Cubans. My descendants were called ‘Afro-Comanches’. This album pays tribute to ‘Afro-Comanches’ and traditions of flamenco, Arabic and classical music. It’s a fusion, and free of borders!

What is Afro-Cuban music to you? It seems to encompass quite a wide range of influences.

This is a big question. As I say, Cuba is a very diverse country, but it all comes back to African rhythmic influences and those sounds born out of theAmericas. For me personally – with my European classical training and US jazz experience – it means everything from J.S Bach to Jelly Roll Morton.

You were declared a Goodwill Ambassador in 2006 – can you tell us more about this? Have you been involved in any new projects in your role as ambassador?

Yes, I continue to be involved with the UN. Roberto Chile, a Cuban filmmaker, and I made a short film called Haiti Volverá (Haiti Will Come Back) after the devastating earthquake in 2010. The music and images respond to a call made by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation to support the recovery of our sister nation. The documentary shows the will of the Haitian people to look to the future with hope and strive to recover, while living in a huge camp in the capital Port-au-Prince. The proceeds of the music are donated to support the reconstruction of the country.

What jazz record would you recommend to introduce someone to the genre?

For me (and there are so many to choose from), you cannot go past Sunday at the Village Vanguard by The Bill Evans Trio. For a new listener, this is one of the best live jazz recordings of all time.

Tell us about your label, Comanche – what prompted you to start your own label?

It really was for the freedom that you get when running your own label. It’s about removing artistic borders, pushing your own boundaries and being in control of the music from its creation through to production and to release. Border-Free is the first album on the label and it features some of my favourite collaborators and musicians, including Bradford Marsalis.

What are you listening to at the moment?

I have a very full iPod and it really is everything from the amazing Chinese concert pianist Lang Lang to my favourite Art Tatum tracks – who remains to this day one of my great inspirations and teachers. My ears are always open!

Chucho Valdés & the Afro–Cuban Messengers play the Opera House Concert Hall on Wednesday June 12.

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