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Manuel Valera Quintet: Vessel

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Manuel Valera Quintet: Vessel
Cuban born and raised, pianist and composer Manuel Valera moved to the US in 1994, attending high school in Florida before moving to New York City in 2000 to study at the New School. His classmates included Robert Glasper, Mike Moreno, Michael Rodriguez, Marcus Strickland and E.J. Strickland. Fast company.

Valera's career as a leader moved up a notch when his band The New Cuban Express received a Grammy nomination in 2013 for Best Latin Jazz Album for their eponymous debut. Since then, Valera has continued to explore Latin and in particular Cuban-informed jazz with small and large ensembles, while also recording in non-Latin situations.

As a composer, Valera has made a feature of through-composition. But Vessel marks a departure from that. Recorded with tenor saxophonist John Ellis, trumpeter Alex Norris, bassist Hamish Smith and drummer Mark Whitfield, Jr., Valera conceived the album rather like an old school Blue Note artefact, where the tunes and their changes, rather than the arrangements, are the platforms for improvisation. As Valera puts it in the sleeve notes: "You play the tune, you blow over the tune, then you play the tune again—the improvisation is as important as the composition."

There is enough energy running through the ten tracks on Vessel to excite jazz fans from newbies to seasoned professionals. But the more one knows of jazz history, the more one is likely to get out of the disc. Valera wrote each of his nine originals (a tenth track is a cover of Kenny Kirkland's "Chance") in honour of a jazz musician he admires. Only one tune, "First Day," is a borderline pastiche of its inspiration, which is Wayne Shorter circa his role as a composer in the Miles Davis quintet of the mid 1960s. (Check the YouTube below: "First Day" sounds rather like something Shorter might have written the same day as "Masqualero"). The remaining tracks contain more subtle hints of their inspirations, Joe Henderson, Thelonious Monk, McCoy Tyner and post-Weather Report Shorter, among other heroes.

Primary soloists Valera, Ellis and Norris get plenty of space in which to stretch out and their work is consistently high caliber. Along with Valera, Ellis, whose soulful sound has been something to savour ever since his time with Charlie Hunter in the early aughties, is a particular joy. Norris' gutsy work is the business, too. And Smith and Whitfield are as tight as you like.

Track Listing

Blues For Kenny K; First Day; Pablo; Sunset; Garzonian; Alma; Crisis; Remembrance; Chance; Mr Henderson.

Personnel

Additional Instrumentation

John Ellis: flute and bass clarinet (6, 8); Alex Norris: flugelhorn (6).

Album information

Title: Vessel | Year Released: 2023 | Record Label: Criss Cross

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