Manuel Valera


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Manuel Valera is termed a Latin jazz pianist, but should not be pigeonholed in strict parameters. In fact, he is an expansive composer, arranger, and bandleader, incorporating modern contemporary composed music, spicy rhythmic underpinnings that do not drown the bandmembers, and a witty piano style that uniquely defines, shapes, and centers the music in a way that the vast majority of listeners will find tuneful, accessible, and joyous. Valera's quartet is complemented on several tracks by a woodwind quintet comprised of some expert players from New York City. This kind of ensemble would usually feature a French horn, but that instrument has been omitted in favor of bass clarinetist Charles Pillow. Oboist Aaron Heick, the wonderful flute player Anne Drummond, rising star clarinetist Anat Cohen, and unsung bassoonist Michael Rabinowitz form a dynamic ensemble that plays in lower-level ranges, timbres, and shadings alongside Valera's regular saxophonist, Joel Frahm. Much of this music is played in tribute to Michael Brecker, and displays a somewhat solemn tone. Frahm's tenor sax is very much reflective of the liquid inventions and expressive signature sound Brecker established. The two standout selections, "So You Say" and "For Those Who Left," are branded with these elements -- the former encased in a tick-tock beat with a modal and lithe melody that is the hallmark of contemporary jazz, the latter in a 6/8 rhythm with a somber yet celebratory mood where Frahm leaves no doubt as to who this is for. The wind instruments perform duties reverent and pastoral during the title cut, then go more animated in Latin and symphonic amalgams. They assimilate a string section for the bulk of "A la Interperie" in a deliberate, understated, sparse, and serene construct. Baby-like passive voicings identify "Infancia" (as did the Thad Jones standard "A Child Is Born"), and "Danzón Para Lisa" is a leisurely, romantic spirit song. Valera gets to stretch during "Comienzo" aside the soprano sax of Frahm and the singing horns. As much as the ideas for these compositions are all his, it is important to know what a truly great pianist this gentleman is. "Home" is a ballad turned into a funky road song with Valera on the Fender Rhodes electric piano. Vientos (translated to English as Wind) is a marvelous musical excursion, for sure a personal statement, and one that classical, jazz, or Latin fans can equally enjoy and relish.

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