Conversation with Pianist Manuel Valera


Manuel Valera 3
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.

Manuel Valera 2What 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

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