Like another Cuban product Aruán Ortiz, Manuel Valera is a gifted piano player who is able to reconcile the rhythmically based Afro-Cuban jazz of his homeland with the harmonically complex modern jazz of New York. Valera is likewise an experienced composer and bandleader, with five albums under his belt since 2004. On those dates, he’s enjoyed the support of such jazz stars as John Patitucci, Bill Stewart, Seamus Blake, Antonio Sanchez, Anat Cohen and Joel Frahm. Perfectly poised at the intersection of Latin, modern and contemporary jazz, Valera has generally themed his albums on format, from a standards trio (Current, 2009) to a nine-piece band playing all originals (Vientos, 2007). For his next one, New Cuban Express, Valera again performs a program heavy on his originals, but this time supported by his new, working six-piece electric band of the same name as the album: The New Cuban Express.
The New Cuban Express, the band, consists of Yosvany Terry on saxes and chekere, Tom Guarna on guitars both acoustic and electric, John Benitez on electric bass, Eric Doob on drums and Mauricio Herrera on percussion. Valera is on piano as usual, but also Rhodes and a little bit of synths. New Cuban Express, the album, is an explicitly more groove-oriented affair, but one that brings to bear his rich Cuban heritage in a fresh, more contemporary light. This is the record where the jazz purists who have followed his career might get up and leave, but if so that would be a shame, because when it comes to constructing intricate, multi-layered and multi-tempoed compositions Valera doesn’t give up an inch. Neither does he give ground in his technical acumen or the performance level he demands from his band. It might all sound easy to digest, but there was a lot of work to get it that way. Valera’s mantra still applies: “I try to create complex music that is simple to the ears.”
The right mixture of traditional and contemporary starts right from the leadoff title track (see video of live performance above) to the equally spunky ending cut “Makuta.” In both performances and throughout most of the set, Valera’s piano remains his dominant voice. But as a skilled bandleader, he also knows how to combine his piano voice with Terry’s sax voice to create harmonics that enrich the expressive feel of his songs. Often described as evocative of both Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, his smooth blending of modern jazz, fusion and ethnic fusion also often comes to mind Michael Brecker’s own albums, especially the Now You See It…Now You Don’t era. That’s particularly true of the track “Upwards” that so completely integrates Afro-Cuban rhythms with advanced harmonics and tactfully deployed synthesizer to add atmospherics.
The band is a very together unit (especially the busy rhythm sub-unit of drummer Doob and percussionist Herrera) and Valera allows everyone to radiate, such as Guarna’s rock-ish guitar solo on “Choices,” Terry’s colorful sax expressions on several cuts, like “Me Faltabas Tú,” and Benitez, who impersonates Marcus Miller for much of the record and turns in a fine solo on “Gismonteando.”
Too electric for mainstream jazz and too sophisticated for smooth jazz, Valera’s New Cuban Express figured out how to lay down a modern groove in a way that doesn’t compromise artistry. It’s the best of both worlds, whether we’re talking about Cuba and New York, or mainstream jazz and fusion.
New Cuban Express is available for sale June 5 by Mavo Records. Visit Manual Valera’s website for more info.