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Conversation with Pianist Manuel Valera



Pianist, Composer, Arranger Manuel Valera
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 - CDs

Mr. 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 Express

The 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 - Expectativas

This 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 Portrait

Following 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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Raul da Gama: Let’s begin at the beginning… What was it like in the beginning in Cuba? Where did you start; what did conservatoire in Cuba mean for you?

Manuel Valera: I joined the conservatory Manuel Saumell when I was 9 years old. I was one of two kids who were admitted that year for saxophone. Yes, saxophone!!! It seemed like a great idea at first. My father Manuel Valera (Sr.) at the time was a prominent saxophonist in Cuba and watching him inspired me. Unfortunately about 6 months in the conservatory I realized I had made a horrible mistake in choosing the saxophone. In Cuba everyone must learn piano (Complimentary Piano is the name they use) as part of his or her studies. Once I started playing the piano I had a connection with the instrument and everything was much easier for me to learn than the saxophone. I had to continue with the saxophone though so until I was 13 I played both instruments.

Did you do a lot of playing in Cuba? Tell me what it was like—the ensembles and musicians you played in/with and so on?

I came to the states when I was 14 so I didn’t do a lot of playing in Cuba. The only group that I’d play with once in a while was in my father’s group whenever his regular pianist couldn’t make it. That was lots of fun!

Is there “intent” that guides you in your music making? What is it that makes you want to make music?

Music for me is deeply rooted. Since I was a little kid music is all I’ve done and the thought of doing anything else never really crossed my mind. It is a very natural process for me. I feel that my environment fuels the music I play and compose too.

How does this “intent” find expression in your music? For instance how does it all tie in with The New Cuban Express?

The New Cuban Express is a perfect avenue for me to write and perform. The band melts the elements that also fuse in my playing: Afro-Cuban folkloric music, timba, straight-ahead Jazz and 70s fusion. The musicians in the band are versed in these genres and we all share similar interests in these styles. I’m really happy with the sound and vibe we are getting.

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How different is this to your solo project?

The NCX couldn’t be more different from the solo project. The solo project is not as extroverted as the NCX. Also in the solo project I perform my compositions as well as compositions by the jazz masters that have influenced my playing. On the solo piano record Self Portrait I play my compositions but also arrangements of compositions by Bill Evans, Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk.

Who would you say was the most influential musician in your life? Has this changed for you over the years?

My first influence was my father of course. He was the first to introduce me to Music and later Jazz. Himself a jazz musician he imparted a lot of knowledge on me. As far as other musicians I have to say that some of my biggest influences on the piano are Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and Emiliano Salvador. As far as composers go definitely Wayne Shorter, Thelonious Monk. Maurice Ravel and Dmitri Shostakovich are also high on the list.

How does this all tie into the earliest music you played? Do you believe that you still express yourself in Afro-Cuban idioms and metaphors?

One time I was doing a gig with Paquito D’Rivera and we were playing some of my tunes and he told me that he felt the clave in all of the music I write, and I have to say that I agree with him. Obviously this is a subconscious thing that I do but after he told me I started noticing it a lot more. The Afro-Cuban music has always had a very strong connection with Jazz. If you listen to Elvin Jones playing those slow triplet tempos with Coltrane… that sounds like Cuban folkloric music to me.

I would like to focus on the other aspects of music making: For instance Cuban music is, at its root Afro-Caribbean. It is hard to keep spirituality out of the essence of Cuban music. Do you see this as an essential part of your own experience as a Cuban-born and raised musician?

I’m not a religious person so keeping the religious part out of the music is not a problem for me. However, I am and will always be a student of that music and Yoruba culture really interests me. When I was growing up even though the folklore was all around me I never got involved. My family wasn’t into that at all so that limited my exposure to that culture. I’ve had a lot more exposure in New York. Yosvany Terry and Mauricio Herrera are good friends and members of the NCX who are also immensely knowledgeable in Afro Cuban folklore and eager to pass it on too!

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Do you still carry the love of certain great Cuban musicians with you?

Yes, of course. Cuba has given the world some incredible musicians over the years. Pianists such as Emiliano Salvador and Frank Emilio Flynn, percussionist Changuito and Tata Güines, Juan Formell of Los Van Van, Chucho Valdés and Irakere. These people have influenced me in a very special way and have also had a special influence on the music that I write for the New Cuban Express. Cuba has also a great tradition of classical composers; Ignacio Cervantes, Ernesto Lecuona and Alejandro Caturla are some of my favorites. I always found it fascinating how they composed classical music without losing their Cuban essence.

Now I would like to talk about composition: How do you approach musical composition?

My approach to composition is quite methodical. I really like the development of ideas and phrases. I always tell people composing is like playing an instrument. In order to get better at your craft you have to study and practice. Of course you need inspiration too, but I feel that will only get you so far. I make a point to write every day when I’m at home. I’m often working on something. It could be a tune for the New Cuban Express, a chamber piece or an arrangement or composition for somebody else. If you compose all the time you also have to rely on your compositional tools. I feel that there are quite a bit of people that write jazz tunes today that don’t have a lot of tools, just ideas that most of the time are not developed to their fullest. Like playing an instrument… It takes time and practice. Also the more you do it the easier it is to recognize what you are hearing in your head!

Do you use the piano exclusively? What I mean is: Perhaps you might imagine a rhythm (or rhythmic figure) that haunts you and provokes the beginning of a composition… would you in this instance see yourself using a conga to assist you in composition?

I use the piano or no instrument sometimes too. A lot of the stuff that I write I have floating on my head so sometimes having the piano is not necessary. I also make a point of writing drum grooves for the tunes in NCX, at least if I have a bass drum/snare pattern that I’ll like to use.

Many composers like to “suggest” a composition rather than write it down. Are you one of those kinds of composers?

Most of the music I write is written down. The conceptual aspects happen over the written music. I like freedom from my band members over the structures that I set up.

How do you communicate “feel” when you address a composition with your musicians? Is it hard? Do you play the “feeling”? Is this sometimes not enough? I know a lot of composers who tell the story of the composition often relating the relationship of the various characters in the story… How does this work for you?

I don’t like referring to other musicians when I want a certain feel: For example: Play this like Jack DeJohnette etc. I think that can limit what the musician in your group can bring to the music. Because then it does come or become sort of an imitating vibe which I don’t like. I’ll say “play it looser”, “tighter groove”, “I want this to be more earthy”, “swinging” etc. For me and the NCX that works better. There is only one Jack DeJohnette!

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Let’s talk groups: How long has New Cuban Express been together as a group?

We’ve been playing since the summer of 2010. Our first gig was in August 2010 at the Jazz Standard in New York.

How did you select the players? Have you known them for long? What brought these specific players to your mind even before you brought them into the band?

All the musicians in the NCX have an affinity and sensibility for Cuban music and straight-ahead jazz. Also all of them I’ve worked with their groups or as sidemen in other projects. I’ve played in the groups of Yosvany Terry and John Benitez. I’ve always been a fan of Mauricio Herrera’s playing, (percussionist) Ludwig (Afonso) and I have performed and toured many times with different bands. I met Tom Guarna while playing with John Benitez’s Group. The other thing about the NCX that makes it special is that we are all good friends and there is never a negative vibe or ego happening.

How many other groups have you led?

I have had a number of groups over the years but it has been since the New Cuban Express that I’ve been doing this to the fullest.

Do you intend to do something using a larger palette? Maybe a bigger band? Or even a smaller band? Have you ever envisioned a duo or a trio for instance?

I’d like to do some Big Band writing. I’ve done some for Paquito D’Rivera and the Lincoln Center Orchestra. A couple of years ago I wrote and recorded a piece that was commissioned by Chamber Music America for a large chamber ensemble with a string quartet, woodwinds and rhythm section. I hope to get to release that soon. As for as the duos: I’m doing a duo project with percussionist Samuel Torres that we hope to record this year.

I’m also doing some solo tours this year and a Trio with Hans Glawischnig and Jeff “Tain” Watts. We actually have our first performance on March 22nd @ the Jazz Gallery in NY. I’m really excited about that. “Tain” is one of my favourite drummers of all time!

Also this year I’ll be performing a piece that was also commissioned by Chamber Music America for the New Cuban Express plus singer Sofia Rei. It is a song cycle based on the poems of Jose Martí Versos Sencillos. These poems were written while Martí was living in New York. The piece is called “Jose Martí in New York”. We’ll have a performance on May 7th at New York’s Harlem Stage and a second and third performance at the Jazz Gallery on June 6 and 7.

How has the experience of the various groups that you have played in (not as a leader) affected your music and influenced you?

I believe that playing and touring as a sideman is an amazing learning experience that everybody should do if they want to be a leader. I’m always learning.

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What made you want to do a solo project? If you were to describe the project, what would you say is the highlight of it?

This has always been something that I wanted to do. But, for the longest time I felt I wasn’t ready. A couple of years ago a friend and producer, Jim Luce booked a couple of solo concerts for me and I really enjoyed myself! The other aspect that intimidated me was the fact that there is such a history of solo piano recordings that I love and If I did something I wanted it to be special. Self Portrait ties all my influences but without trying to imitate. There are some boleros that I love such as “Solamente una vez” and “Las perlas de tu boca,” a series of impromptus that I dedicate to Gershwin, Satie and Slonimsky and some jazz compositions by Monk, Bill Evans and Bud Powell.

How did you come upon the title? What do you intend to say with the music?

I see it like a musical selfie, to use the parlance of our times. This is me at the core of what I do. I’m very happy with the results on Self Portrait. I feel that this solo recording is one that I can be proud of.

Are you going to play it live at some stage? Wouldn’t it be interesting to get an audience reaction?

This year I’m doing a couple of tours in May and June. I’ve also played a concert at WDNA in Miami in February. People generally, really are into it. Solo piano is a specific thing that is not for everybody but the people that go to these concerts know what they are getting so in a way is easier to come across.

Is there any such thing as playing live too much or too little? In the early days of this music bands did not make as many records as they did play clubs and concert halls… Has the dynamic changed in your opinion? How does this work for you?

I feel that we never play enough live, even though we are playing quite a bit now. I think the more you play the better it is for the music and for you as an artist. For the NCX we generally play the music a lot live before we record it, which is a rarity these days. Most people just go to the studio, make a record and then do a couple of gigs. I’m very fortunate to have an avenue like the NCX to work on the music. Also, if you play a lot in different markets you are exposing a lot more different people to your music, which can’t hurt.

Thank you very much for taking the time to talk to me and answer my questions Manuel.

It’s my pleasure Raul. Thank you for interviewing me. I’m a big fan of

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.

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