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Conversation with Pianist Manuel Valera

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Manuel Valera: The wunderkind of the New Musical Express on music and life

Although it may not have happened that way, pianist Manuel Valera seems to have burst on the New York music scene. Of course he was born in Cuba, but then—it seems—he appeared in New York as if by magic, announced his genius and began to sub with some of the finest musicians in the city. His roll call includes such a stellar cast as Arturo Sandoval, Paquito D’Rivera, Brian Lynch, Dafnis Prieto, Jeff “Tain” Watts, John Benitez, Samuel Torres, Joel Frahm and Yosvany Terry among many others.

Manuel Valera - CDsMr. Valera made his American recording debut in 2004 with Forma Nueva (MAVO) a critically acclaimed recording that featured John Patitucci on bass, Horacio “El Negro” Hernández and Bill Stewart on drums and Seamus Blake on alto saxophone. This was followed, a year later, by Historia (Fresh Sounds New Talent), where Mr. Valera was accompanied by another exquisite quartet comprising drummer Antonio Sanchez, saxophonist Seamus Blake and bassist Ben Street. His third release was Melancolía (MAVO), again a year later. This album was conceptually different from all of his other work and here the pianist employed a string quartet incorporating rhythms from across the world with classical concepts, executed in the jazz idiom. Vientos (Anzic, 2007) represented a new working quartet and featured bassist James Genus together with drummer Ernesto Simpson, saxophonist Joel Frahm and a woodwind quartet. This album was also critically received. His fifth recording also featured James Genus and Ernesto Simpson and was called Currents (MaxJazz 2009) typical of Mr. Valera’s never-ending musical journey and suggesting the ocean of sound that brought him from Cuba to the USA.

Manuel Valera - New Cuban ExpressThe breakthrough seems to have come when Mr. Valera formed his latest venture, the New Cuban Express (NCX). His first self-titled recording on MAVO, with this ensemble—featuring Yosvany Terry on alto saxophone and chékere, Mauricio Herrera on percussion, Eric Doob on drums, John Benitez on bass and Tom Guarna on guitar—earned him a Grammy nomination in 2012. This album, New Cuban Express is Cuban-American pianist, Manuel Valera’s attempt to redefine his relationship with Cuban music including the classic Cuban son and bolero as well as the more popular danzón and rhumba. As a matter of fact, all the music that the pianist has composed for this performance is infused with the spectacular energy and emotion of those forms and is re-imagined in the rhythmic realm of more contemporary music. There is a distinct homage to the so-called fusion of the idioms and improvisational complex architecture of jazz and the more urgent and simplistic rock rhythms. All this is enshrouded in the swagger and melodicism in the bass as well as in the backbeat of tumbao. It is in this wonderfully edifying hybrid that Mr. Valera and his ensemble is able to expand the vocabulary and language of Afro-Cuban music, brimful with interesting changes in time signatures and abrupt chord changes.

Manuel Valera - ExpectativasThis album was followed up with Expectativas. Here Manuel Valera and New Cuban Express seem to have picked up from where they left off. This album has the same vigor and the same energy as its Grammy-nominated predecessor. And while Mr. Valera may be continuing in that vein: that is the innovative use of Afri-Cuban rhythms to forge a new relationship with the idiom of jazz, this record, Expectativas brings something new. This is a rather visceral energy that bubbles and boils over in the underlying rhythmic inventions, but that is topped over by a more sophisticated polyphony that bathes the harmony, while the rhythm continues to agitate and excite what music is made in that proverbial crucible. It is like an exotic hydrocarbon produced when the elements are churned in a vessel, that being the piano of Mr. Valera. Immediately the wonderful throb and exquisite swaggering dance by the instruments—chiefly that of that other ingenious musician, Yosvany Terry, who yowls and yelps on soprano saxophone; growls and wails on alto and spikes his music with masterful percussion colours on the chékere.

Manuel Valera - Self PortraitFollowing this second critically acclaimed NCX album, however, Mr. Valera seems to have made another strategic turn in a different direction. He has just completed work on Self Portrait, a solo record. “It seemed like the right time,” he says. The album is being polished as we went to press. It is a ponderous album, full of exquisite expression, breathtaking dynamics and rich in metaphor. While speaking about this recording, Mr. Valera also chose to talk about a wide range of subjects about his early life and early influences as well as his philosophy on music. In everything he did Mr. Valera was extraordinarily lucid, Like his soli, his answers were brief, but extremely telling about everything from his life to his love for music; from composition to performance and communicating with musicians. Here is that interview in its unexpurgated form.

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Based in Milton, Ontario, Canada, Raul is a poet, musician and an accomplished critic whose profound analysis is reinforced by his deep understanding of music, technically as well as historically.

Interviews

In Conversation with “Drum Poet” Pazcual Villaronga

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Pazcual Villaronga

PAZCUAL VILLARONGA was born and raised in Spanish Harlem, New York. He attended Haaren High School and New York City Community College and graduated from Hunter College, earning a degree in Communications and a Master’s Degree in Bilingual Education. 

Known as the “Drum Poet,” Pazcual recites poetry while accompanying himself on the congas (often joined by other musicians), creating an innovative fusion of poetry and discussion that takes his verses to a new level. 

Pazcual is the recipient of the Golden and Silver Poet Awards in California and placed third in La Canción Bilingüe – The Bilingual Song Competition in Washington, D.C. He has read poetry at Columbia University, Teachers College, Hunter College, Hostos Community College, Manhattan Community College, and Connecticut’s Housatonic Community College. 

His published works include the highly successful “Caracol” (Poems For The Children), “By The Music Inspired,” “Poet,” “Fire From Hell,” “Compendium,” and “Stereotypes and Cycles.” His most recent collection of poems and CD is titled “On Whatever Day Saturday Happens To Fall.” Pazcual’s work has also appeared in “Around the Mulberry Bush – An Anthology,” “Windfall – An Anthology,” and “Fahari.”

Now retired after over three decades of teaching, Pazcual is preparing several collections of poetry and a children’s book and performs with The Lehman College Latin Jazz Ensemble, directed by Victor Rendón. 

Pazcual Villaronga and the New Drum Poets: On Whatever Day Saturday Happens to Fall
Pazcual Villaronga and the New Drum Poets: On Whatever Day Saturday Happens to Fall

TOMÁS PEÑA: Welcome, Pazcual! Tell me about the project. 

PAZCUAL VILLARONGA:  “On Whatever Day Saturday Happens to Fall” is my salute to the musicians and their creative souls. Also, to the percussive rhythms and melodies, they share with us each and every time they perform. Also, it is my way of sharing with the world, through poetry, how they inspire me and the power and beauty of their musical creations.

TP: Thank you for sharing an advance copy of the book and CD with me and for taking me on a fascinating bilingual literary and aural journey. Before we delve into the project, I’m curious to know what drew you to poetry and the spoken word.

PV: Growing up, I was shy and introverted. Poetry was my way of expressing myself. When I was in high school, my friend Jose showed my writings to a teacher (Dr. Richstone) and the teacher replied, “There are better things you could do with your time.” Undaunted, my friend showed my writings to another teacher (Mary Lamboss), and she said, “You are the Poet Laureate of Harren High School!” Later, I formed the “Drum Poets” and began reciting poetry with percussion and music.

TP: How did the project come about, and why did you choose this title?

PV: It began with Víctor Rendón’s “Fiesta Percusiva” (2008), where I recited the poems “Soy Chicano” and “In the Pocket.” Shortly after, Victor appeared on José “Joe” Massó’s “Con Salsa!,” who played selections from the album on the air. He encouraged me to “make more music like this.” Shortly after, Víctor asked if I was interested in pursuing the project, and I immediately said, “Yes!” Victor Rendón agreed to produce the record with the following conditions: Trust him implicitly and don’t breathe a word about it to anyone until the project is completed. The rest is history!

The title, “On Whatever Day Saturday Happens to Fall,” is inspired by trumpeter John Walsh, who composed the song “On Whatever Day of the Week Saturday Happens to Fall” (the tune appears on Chris Washburne and the Syotos Band’s “Paradise in Trouble”) and whose philosophy is, “On Whatever Day of the Week Saturday Happens to Fall, musicians must answer the call and give their all.” Walsh’s philosophy resonates with me because it applies to poets and creative souls who must be in the moment when the muse appears.

The New Drum Poets: Paz Villaronga, Yasuyo Kimura, Louis Bauzó, Victor Rendón and Wilson "Chembo" Corniel
The New Drum Poets: Pazcual Villaronga, Yasuyo Kimura, Louis Bauzó, Victor Rendón and Wilson “Chembo” Corniel

TP: The recording contains a collection of your poems set to music: Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Puerto Rican rhythms, Jazz, and Latin Jazz and features an impressive lineup: Víctor Rendón, Wilson “Chembo” Corniel, Louis Bauzo, Yasuya Kimura, Mike Viñas, Amy Quint Millan and José Luis Armengot. Additional guests include Andrea Brachfeld, Henry Brun, Ariel De La Portilla, and Roman Diaz (see below for specifics). Tell me about the poem, “Right Pocket/Left Pocket.”

PV: My mother was concerned about my dad, who drank excessively and played pool at a local social club. She asked me to check on him and bring him home. When I arrived, my father was intoxicated and staggering. Shortly after, a neighborhood hustler and “aprovechao” (exploiter) named Chano challenged my father to a game of pool. My father immediately asked me, “How much money do you have?” And demanded I give it to him. Then, miraculously, he took a breath and straightened up. After that, it was “right pocket, left pocket!” Long story short, my father and I left the social club fifty dollars richer! When Victor and I arranged the tune, he had just acquired a set of “timbalitos” (9-1/4 and 10-and 1/4 timbales), which have a very distinct sound. If you listen closely, you will hear Victor mimic the sound of the cue ball striking the billiards.

TP: Your words conjure up images. I felt like a fly on the wall! I also enjoyed the poem, “El Chembito,” where percussionist Wilson “Chembo” Corniel masterfully accompanies you. 

PV: The poem was born while listening to Chembo’s solo on the tune “Lagos” which appears on Victor Rendon & the Bronx Conexion Latin Jazz Big Band’s “True Flight” (2016). I realized that in Chembo’s hands and in the hands of the masters, you feel and hear the connections between past and present and are privy to a glimpse of the future. Chembo has a way of taking you along for the ride as he time travels between rhythms, feelings, and emotions! His hands never falter, and his ideas are always fresh!

TP: The poem, “I Saw You (Tribute 4 Miles)” talks about a unique experience you shared with trumpeter José Luis Armengot onstage.

PV: Yes, Jose was standing to my right, and he was soloing on the tune “Fragile.” I turned to Jose; he was wearing dark glasses and leaning back like Miles used to, and I saw Miles! At the time, I was not aware that Jose idolized Miles. Later, I read the poem to Jose and I said, “You are Miles!”

TP: Tell me about the poem, “In the Pocket.”

PV: The poem is inspired by Omar Castaños, who said, “Some musicians express themselves and don’t say a lot. But every once in a while, you will find an artist who sits in the pocket, and everything is pushed away. I saw it happen when the masterful Luis Bauzo took a solo at “Gonzalez y Gonzalez” (NYC) in front of a packed house and stopped the room. The poem was born at that moment!

TP: The poems mentioned earlier are examples of what listeners and readers can expect. There is much more to savor! The CD and book will be released on December 1, 2022. Is there a CD Release Party or a live performance in the works? 

PV: We have yet to set a specific date, but, yes, it is in the works. 

TP: “On Whatever Day Saturday Happens to Fall” will be available at: http://amazon.com via https://cdbaby.com, and all the major digital streaming, and download sites (iTunes, Spotify, etc.). Also, readers can listen to and download the CD on Pazcual Villaronga’s Website: http://conceptovillapaz.com.

TP: Closing thoughts?

PV: If I have touched you with one word, phrase, or poem, I have done my job as a poet!

TP: Indeed, you have! “On Whatever Day Saturday Happens to Fall” recalls the writings of the Nuyorican poet and playwright Pedro Pietri, playwright Tato Laviera, activist, journalist, media personality Felipe Luciano, and Latina poet Sandra Maria Estevez, among others. Rarely has the spoken word, Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Puerto Rican rhythms, and Latin Jazz come together as organically and beautifully as it does on this exciting and innovative project. Highly recommended!

The Original Drum Poets: Jorge Alicea, Davis Alicea, Roxanna Rodriguez, Pazcual Villaronga, Ray Alicea, and Omar A. Castaños
The Original Drum Poets: Jorge Alicea, Davis Alicea, Roxanna Rodriguez, Pazcual Villaronga, Ray Alicea, and Omar A. Castaños
TRACKS

1. Drummers Prayer
2. By the Music Inspired
3. In the Pocket
4. What Do You Do?
5. El Chembito
6. How Many of Us Listen?
7. Bongo Habla Otra Vez
8. Que No Se Te Olvides
9. Right Pocket/Left Pocket
10. On Whatever Day Saturday Happens to Fall
11. I Saw You (Tribute 4 Miles)
12. Alma Jibarita
13. Puerto Rican Trilogy
14. Puerto Rican Trilogy
15. Puerto Rican Trilogy
16. Speak Easy
17. Soul Riffs
18. Entendian Voz
19. Another Night in Tunisia
20. En Las Manos de Los Maestros
21. Afro, Is That You?
22. Now and Then

THE NEW DRUM POETS

Pazcual Villaronga – Executive Producer, Poetic Voz, Conga and Shekeré
Víctor Rendón – Producer, Drum Set, Timbales, Pailitas, Shekeré, Batá (Okonkolo), Coro
Wilson “Chembo” Corniel – Congas, Batá (Itótele), Guataca, Coro
Louis Bauzo – Bongos, Congas, Barril (Primo), Batá (Iyá), Bonkó Enchemiyá, Güícharo Puertorriqueño, Coro
Yasuya Kimura – Congas, Bongos, 1st and 2nd Cajón, Maraca, Coro

SPECIAL GUESTS

Michael Viñas– Bass
Amy Quint Millan – Piano, Coro
José Luis Armengot – Trumpet

ADDITIONAL GUESTS
  • Andrea Brachfeld – Flute
  • Henry Brun – Conga, Shaker
  • Ariel de la Portilla Acoustic Bass
  • Roman Diaz (Batá and Various Percussion)
  • Diego Lopez (Batá and Various Percussion)
  • Allan Molnar First Marimba
  • Yumi Suehiro Second Marimba
FEATURED PHOTO

LEFT TO RIGHT: Pazcual Villaronga, Yasuyo Kimura, Louis Bauzo, Víctor Rendón, Wilson “Chembo” Corniel.

POETRY BY PAZCUAL VILLARONGA
  • COMPENDIUM (1991)
  • POETRY (1995)
  • BY THE MUSIC INSPIRED (2002)
  • FIRE FROM HELL (2004)
  • CARACOL – P0EMS FOR CHILDREN (2009)
  • ON WHATEVER DAY SATURDAY HAPPENS TO FALL (2022)
ARTIST WEBSITE
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