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Manuel Valera: The Planets

Mike Jurkovic By

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Cuban-born pianist Manuel Valera is not unknown to jazz-heads who make it their business to listen and champion. But, since his acclaimed 2004 debut Forma Nueva, a couple of Grammy nods, and last year's quietly brilliant The Seasons, Valera's name and exciting blend of culture, tradition, and progression has spread deservedly like wildfire through the larger audience. The Planets ramps up the forward rate of spread.

Ranging fiercely across the 88s like peak McCoy Tyner—fanciful, fluid chromatic runs accompanying thunderous, chunky chords—Valera, with the visceral E.J. Strickland on drums and venerable Hans Glawischnig on bass, lay down the law of what makes, and what is expected of, contemporary piano trios: roller coasters of ideas and invigorating variations on theme and emotion. Music too shake the malaise.

All the intellectual implications and machinations behind the music being commissioned by the Chamber Music America/Doris Duke 2017 New Works Program to interpret the late Russian composer Nicholas Slominsky's Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns, thoughts included in The Planets' liner notes by Multiple-Grammy and Latin Grammy Award-Kabir Sehgalb, are deep stuff, difficult to understand for those without a technical music knowledge. Not to take anything away from the import of all it, but that malaise mentioned before, well The Planets does just that and more. There's a muscular impressionism at work here and a trio telepathy found in only a handful of ensembles.

With its wash of chimes, "Sun Prelude 1" may have some listeners recalling John Coltrane and Rashied Ali's breathtaking sessions for Interstellar Space, but as "I Mercury-The Messenger" takes shape and flight, all comparisons become null and void. The symmetrical preludes introduce ranging, elliptical, post-bop declarations. "II Venus-Peace" is a warm revelry, its lyrical and deeply emotive melody tipping Valera's hat away from Tyner to Bill Evans. But dark clouds quickly amass—naturally? purposefully?—on the aptly titled "Intro to Earth," and on the barely controlled cacophony "III Earth -The History of Us." Glawischnig is the central figure of "IV Mars -Ancient Warrior," as Valera and Strickland surround him en force. The same can be said for Strickland on "V Jupiter-Joyous Thunder."

Yet with all this dashing interplanetary adventurousness and inventiveness, it may be on Elton John and Bernie Taupin's earthly, seminal "Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters" that Valera and company hit their true highs. For by digging deep into the song's musical and emotional resonance, the trio creates a masterful swagger of pop, jazz, and classical convergence, making The Planets a profusely giving work and easily one of the keystone offerings of 2018.

Track Listing: Sun Prelude I; I Mercury-The Messenger; Sun Prelude II; II Venus-Peace;, Intro to Earth; IIIEarth-History of Us; IV Mars-Ancient Warrior; Sun Prelude III; V Jupiter-Joyous Thunder; VI Saturn-The Wise One; VII Uranus-Morphing Skies; VIII Neptune-Prophet of the Seas; Bonus Tracks: Llora; Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters.

Personnel: Manuel Valera: piano; Hans Glawischnig: bass; E.J. Strickland: drums.

Title: The Planets | Year Released: 2018 | Record Label: Mavo Records

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