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Manuel Valera: Self Portrait

Dan Bilawsky By

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Pianist Manuel Valera's New Cuban Express has pulled into the station for a pit stop, his band mates have stepped off the train to stretch their legs, and the conductor of said locomotive is now left to ponder his own existence in front of his controls. Such is the story that could be told to detail and dance around this pivotal point in Valera's career: the creation and release of his first solo piano record.

Valera—a Cuban-born, New York-based Grammy nominee—has seven albums to his credit prior to this one. His straight-ahead-meets-Latin mindset was at the core of Forma Nueva (Mavo, 2004) and Historia (Fresh Sound New Talent, 2005); he weaved classical ideals and global strains into his work with the string-enhanced Melancolia (Mavo, 2006); and he worked a woodwind quartet into his expressive and expansive music on Vientos (Anzic, 2007). Then, after exploring the piano trio format on Currents (MaxJazz, 2009), he turned the intensity up a few notches, setting his Latin-ized fusion juggernaut—New Cuban Express (Mavo, 2012)—on a collision course with acclaim. Expectivas (Mava, 2013)—a sequel-of-sorts to that feisty winner—followed. Now, after doing all of that, he delivers what can only be described as his most compelling record yet. And he does it all by his lonesome.

Self Portrait is a picture of artist as an independent and indebted man. The shackles of influence never immobilize Valera, but he makes no secret about his musical favorites. He tips his cap to Bill Evans on "Very Early," but he makes the piece his own by straightening it out and reshaping it in five. Bud Powell's "Hallucinations" retains its playful disposition when Valera sets it in motion, but Thelonious Monk's "Ask Me Now" is dosed with Latin spices. It's this give-and-take between respect and remodeling that makes this album so riveting. Elsewhere, Valera delivers transfixing boleros ("Las Perlas De Tu Bocas"), quizzical and paranoid miniatures ("Improvisation"), and studied original tributes to George Gershwin, Erik Satie, and Nicolas Slonominsky.

Valera's piano meditations can be delicate or direct and powerful, depending on the message he's trying to send at any given moment, but those messages always come through clearly. Valera says what he means, and he means what he says, expressing himself with extreme coherence on Self Portrait.

Track Listing: Spiral; Very Early; Solamente Una Vez; Impromptu No. 1 For George Gershwin); Hallucinations; Water; Impromptu No. 2 For Erik Satie; Ask Me Now; Las PerlasDe Tu Boca; Improvisation; Hope; Impromptu No. 3 For Nicolas Slonimsky; Blues.

Personnel: Manuel Valera: piano.

Title: Self Portrait | Year Released: 2014 | Record Label: Mavo Records

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