Manuel Valera: Yaoundé, Currents & Oscar e Familia
Cuban pianist Manuel Valera is throwing his weight around the jazz scene and having an impact on several different levels. He's a fine acoustic stylist but also a serious proponent of electric keys. He's a rhythmic hyper-modernist (much like Dafnis Prieto and other innovating Latin jazz peers), but also a burner invested in the art of straight-ahead swinging. And last, he's a viable bandleader honing his own voice, but also an active sideman who can function tastefully in any setting and leap out like a tiger as a soloist.
To appreciate this pianist's gifts, one should examine not just Currents, his fifth and latest album, but also his appearances on Yaoundé, the sophomore release by Colombian percussionist Samuel Torres and Oscar e Familia, by Argentine alto saxophonist Oscar Feldman.
Of the three, Yaoundé is the strongest. The sound is enormous and the bandwith Valera heard alongside saxophonist Joel Frahm, trumpeter Michael Rodriguez, bassist John Benitez and drummer Ernesto Simpson, plus guestsis beyond cooking. Valera's first solo spot comes on track three, the title song, followed by plenty more. His Nord organ sound brings a distinct shimmer to "Cosita Rica," although the Rhodes solo attack on "Lincoln Tunnel" and the closing "Camino del Barrio" is a bit muddled and indistinct. "Bambuco," "A Rose" and the opening "Un Atardercer en Cartagena de Indias," all with exceedingly subtle piano orchestration, bring out Valera's sensitive touch and team-player qualitiesnot to mention Torres' flair for merging traditional Latin jazz with left-field ideas drawn from other vocabularies.
Quite unlike Yaoundé, Valera's Currents is a piano trio date down the line, with Simpson again on drums and James Genus, who plays a pronounced and welcome role as a soloist, on acoustic and electric basses. Here, too, Valera adds Rhodes and even spacier Moog-type sounds ("Hindsight") to the mix. One can hear the imprint of Chick Corea, perhaps, in the layered keyboard lines, odd kinetic rhythms and quasi-fusion aesthetic of the opening "Numerico" and the closing title track. But Valera stresses his songbook bona fides with "How Deep Is the Ocean," the crystalline ballads "I Loves You Porgy" and "I Fall in Love Too Easily" and a reading of Monk's "We See" that calls to mind Danilo Perez' brilliant Panamonk. Honoring the late Kenny Kirkland, Valera also offers "Dienda" and "Ode to Kenny," the latter a fast, involved waltz co-written with Simpson. Valera sparkles and the trio connects on a high level, even if the audio here isn't quite as crisp as it is on Yaoundé.
Oscar Feldman's Oscar e Familia features Valera on all tracks except one. The disc juxtaposes Feldman originals with works by the altoist's wide-ranging influences, from Guillermo Klein ("El Minotauro") to Wayne Shorter ("Children of the Night"), Astor Piazzolla ("Triunfal") and most notably Feldman's mentor Hermeto Pascoal, who wrote the title track and dedicated it to Feldman himself. The flavor of the set is heavily South American, with Tango and Brazilian references, two tracks augmented by string quartet, one with bandoneon and one with a guest vocalist. The orchestration of the Pascoal number entails five overdubbed saxophones. If the program seems a bit overstuffed, let it be noted that Valera is easily a standout presence. He locks in once again with Benitez on bass, mixes acoustic and electric sound worlds and swings with gusto on Feldman's Lee Konitz tribute "So Tenderlee." Simply put, he makes his case as a vital player whose role in the music will only get more interesting.
Tracks and Personnel
Tracks: Un Atardecer en Cartagena de Indias; Oye; Yaoundé; Tumaco; Bambuco (to Santa Fé de Bogotá); Cosita RicaThe Richness of the Small Things; La Niña en el AguaThe Girl in the Water; Macondo (Para Lucho Bermúdez); Ronca el Canalete; Lincoln Tunnel; Rio Magdalena; A Rose; ChíaThe Moon Goddess; Camino del Barrio.
Personnel: Samuel Torres: congas; Joel Frahm: tenor and soprano saxophones; Anat Cohen: clarinet; Michael Rodriguez: trumpet, flugelhorn; Manuel Valera: piano, Fender Rhodes, Nord keyboard; John Benitez: electric and acoustic basses; Ernesto Simpson: drums.
Tracks: Numerico; How Deep is the Ocean; Balada Para Isabel; We See; I Fall In Love Too Easily; Ode to Kenny; Dienda; Hindsight; I Loves You Porgy; Current
Personnel: Manuel Valera: piano; James Genus: bass; Ernesto Simpson: drums.
Oscar e Familia
Tracks: Mrs. Tangoholic; The Improvisers; So Tenderlee; Oscar e Familia; Coco da Bahia; New Tango; Triunfal; El Minotauro; Children of the Night; Peace to Find.
Personnel: Oscar Feldman: alto saxophone, soprano saxophone (4); Manuel Valera: piano, Fender Rhodes (1, 2, 4); Didi Gutman: keyboard and sampled sounds (1); John Benitez: electric bass (1, 2, 4), acoustic bass (3, 5, 6, 9); Pablo Aslan: acoustic bass (4, 7, 8, 10); Antonio Sanchez: drums; Pernell Saturnino: percussion; Diego Urcola: trumpet (1), trombone (2); Mark Turner: tenor saxophone (3); Xavier Perez: tenor saxophone, baritone saxophone (4); Tito Castro: bandoneon (7); Carlos Franzetti: Cuartetango String Quartet arrangements (4, 5); Leonardo Suarez Paz: violin (4, 5); Nicholas Danielson: violin (4, 5); Ron Lawrence: viola (4, 5); Daniel Miller: cello (4, 5); Luis Alberto Spinetta: voice (10).