In the liner notes to Manuel Valera’s debut group recording, Forma Nueva , writer Howard Mandel states that “Valera is no iconoclastic revolutionary, rather an innovative developmentalist.” And, true enough, Valera doesn’t break any rules, but he does bend them, finding new ways to incorporate his Cuban roots in ways that are clear but never overstated or too in-your-face. His impressionism assures that he comes as much from a classical canonical background as he does from Bill Evans and, perhaps even more directly, Chick Corea. But while his roots are evident, he manages to emerge with a distinctive voice that sometimes displays the mind-numbing left hand/right hand independence of Brad Mehldau, other times the energetic modality of Richie Beirach.
The set exemplifies how changing one player can radically affect the outcome. While bassist John Patitucci is a constant throughout the session, the drum chair is shared by Bill Stewart and Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez. Stewart’s more subtle polyrhythmic approach lends a certain post bop authenticity to the tunes he is on, most notably the driving “Metaphorically Speaking,” which also features a strong contribution by saxophonist Seamus Blake, a musician whose reputation within the musical community is, sadly, stronger than that without.
Hernandez is a more muscular player with a deeper root in Afro-Cuban styles, and so his work on the more ethnic “Forma Nueva” and “En Cinco,” which is a 5/4 romp based in some part on Tito Puente’s “Oye Como Va,” is appropriate. But he is a broad enough player to handle more straight-ahead material with great confidence, as in the complex “Displaced,” which manages to incorporate a Guaganco rhythm in the blowing section with a 10/4 theme and features another intense solo from Blake.
While Blake’s appearance on four of the album’s twelve tracks provides some textural diversity, the majority of the record is a feature for Valera in a trio setting. He is a deeply thematic player, often building longer lines from small motifs. But as much as Forma Nueva is a vehicle for his playing, it is also a showcase for his fine writing. What is remarkable, these days, is how mature and well-formed some of the younger players are when they come out of the gate, and Valera is no exception. While he has a strong résumé with artists including Paquito D’Rivera, Steve Turre and Bobby Sanabria, he is only now emerging as a solo artist, and already he is displaying unique performance and compositional voices. There is a strong lyricism in his playing, and while his themes can be extended and a little complicated, they are eminently hummable.
While there are many young pianists out there forging their way, Valera’s personal incorporation of Cuban and other ethnic Latin styles into a contemporary post bop context assures him a distinguished place. Forma Nueva is a strong first effort from an artist who will, no doubt, be heard from again.
Visit Manuel Valera on the web. This recording is available from CDBaby .