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 rumba. 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 back beat of tumbao. It is in this wonderfully edifying hybrid that 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.
None of these experimental efforts would bear fruit were it not for the fact that Valera owes an enormous debt to his ensemble comprising new star-in-the-making, saxophonist and chékere player extraordinaire, Yosvany Terry, another rising star from Cuba, the ingenious percussion master, Mauricio Herrera as well as the stellar American drummer, Eric Doob. And then there is the great bassist John Benítez, who has graced so many glorious sessions and a relative unknown guitar genius, Tom Guarna. Of course the stewardship of the leader bears special mention. Manuel Valera is a sublime technician whose virtuoso pianism is revealed in the extraordinary musicality of his playing, whether he is playing the concert grand or Fender Rhodes or an assortment of keyboards. Although Valera is essentially a melodic thinker, he displays all the signs of classical Cuban tumbao, something that has graced the playing of all great Cuban pianists, from Bebo Valdés and Peruchín, through Emiliano Salvador, Chucho Valdés, Guillermo Rubalcaba and Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Roberto Fonseca and others. Moreover, like Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Roberto Fonseca and the newly anointed masters such as David Virelles and Aruán Ortiz, Valera plays with seep emotion. His is a soulful sound that seems to sweep out of his heart and not so much his head. His hands appear to be driven by the nervous energy of spiritual leanings and human emotions such as love and affection rather than the programmatic prompts of the proverbial black dots on score-sheets.
The result is beautiful interpretations of such classics as “Me Faltabas Tú” and “Poly” as well as new material that clearly advances the literature of the New Cuban Sound, such as Valera’s own compositions, “Choices” as well as “Gismonteando,” (where he fuses his hot Cuban sound with the Maracatú and frevo that is in obvious homage to the great Brasilian, Egberto Gismonti, and “Cinco Contra Trés,” “Danzón” and “Makuta”. The latter three songs are where the true genius of Valera lies for here he has taken the rhythms of classical Cuban idioms of old music and dance forms and almost completely reinvented them. Much of his efforts would have been in vain, however, were it not for the special qualities of melodicism and harmonic ingenuity that the saxophonist and chékere specialist brings to the date. Yosvany Terry has one of the most fascinating musical imaginations, which has a direct impact on anyone or any music he interprets. His ability to lengthen notes, prolonging their specific and singular magic; then creating phrases which leap and bound in interesting elevations and parabolas is absolutely irresistible. On the traditional chékere, he has no equal and he shows off his skills on “Poly” and especially on the brief solo he plays on “Upwards”.
So is the experiment of Manuel Valera and the New Cuban Express a success. In a word, resoundingly, because the sound is both old and spectacularly new in terms of his re-invention of the music of a tradition to which he is inextricably linked. And this increases Valera’s importance as a musician in the arena of Afro-Cuban music.
Tracks list – New Cuban Express; Intro to Upwards; Upwards; Choices; Me Faltabas Tú; Regards; Poly; Intro to Gismonteando; Gismonteando; Interlude; Cinco Contra Trés; Danzón; Makuta.
Personnel – Manuel Valera: piano, Fender Rhodes; keyboards; Yosvany Terry: alto and soprano saxophones, chékere; Tom Guarna: electric and acoustic guitars; John Benítez: bass; Eric Doob: drums; Mauricio Herrera: percussion.
Label – Mavo Record
Adrien Brandeis: Siempre Más Allá
Listening to the music of Siempre Más Allá, it certainly seems that the young French pianist, Adrien Brandeis has strengthened the belief that he is a proverbial citizen of the Afro-Caribbean universe. To be clear Mr Brandeis still loves all music and swings as hard as any pianist who loves Black American Music – that is, music that you can sing and dance to. But also continues to be beguiled by the rolling thunder of Afro-Caribbean music. The wild call of the rhythms and the joie de vivre of the questing melodies and harmonies not only appeal to his ear, but also speak to him in the hidden parts of his heart.
By his own admission Siempre Más Allá took root during three tours to Mexico undertaken under the aegis of the Fédération des Alliances Françaises du Mexique. The virtually all-Afro-Cuban repertoire of the album radiates charm at every turn. These disarmingly natural and eloquent performances bring out the music’s inherent drama and penchant for tumbao with a deft touch while indulging Brandeis’ lyrical instincts to the full. Meticulously balanced, the four quartet pieces, the trio and duo pieces feel as if they are chamber works. Brandeis’ astonishingly insightful playing is musically captivating and technically blemishless. Each phrase rings so completely true that one can’t imagine the music played any other way.
The album features Mr Brandeis and a group of very accomplished musicians. These include the celebrated Cuban percussionist Roberto Vizcaíno Guillot [on two tracks] and his son Roberto Vizcaíno Jr., Mexican drummer José Loria Triay make up the wall of percussion. The Brasilian bassist Giliard Lopes brings his distinctive veritas to the whole rhythm section. The big surprise here is, perhaps, the presence of the great Cuban Horacio “El Negro” Hernández sitting in the drum chair on La buena vibra.
Siempre Más Allá is an affirmation of Brandeis’ enduring love and natural affinity for Latin music. Not surprisingly the music seems to echo the famous Latin American phrase: “¡Que rico bailo yo!” [which, in English, exclaims: “How well I dance!”]. This is no hyperbole as the music – in its pulses and rhythms show as Brandeis traverses the rhythmic topography of the Caribbean and Latin America. Along the way Brandeis plunged into the world of changüí, the chacarera, Brasilian gaucho music and the ancient melodic thunder of bàtá drums.
From the get-go listeners will find themselves immersed in quite another world of rippling percussive grooves. The track Ek Bakam, for instance, conjures the intricate architecture; the line and flow of an epic Mayan civilisation located in the Yucatan. Narratives from the Latin world abound – often paying homage to famous traditional musicians. Pancho’s Power is one such chart inspired by the vivid world of the legendary trio Los Panchos. Brandeis gives his percussion section a lot of space when he puts the spotlight on them on Tierra de Oportunidades – a wistful memory of the pianist’s three tours to Mexico, which is also incidentally the popular provincial slogan of the Mexican state of Guanajuato. On Huachi-Huachi Brandeis digs deep into the epicurean delights of the only Latin country in North America with this song in praise of a kind of gourmet Mexican fish: the huachinango.
Brandeis then celebrates his association with percussion colourist Roberto Vizcaíno Jr. with the extraordinary music of Vizcaíno Blues, a piece unique with its exploratory chromaticisms and elegant sonorities that beautifully capture the eloquence of the percussionist in whose praise the music is written. Mindful of the fact that Vizcaíno is Cuban but makes his home in Mexico, Brandeis shapes the rhythmic and harmonic palette of the piece accordingly. On La Buena Vibra Brandeis delivers astonishing pianistic fireworks in the piece’s melodic and harmonic lines, played at a frenetic pace, to mirror the style of its dedicatee, Michel Camilo. The pianist demonstrates an authentic home-grown grasp of Cuban music as he reimages Voy a Apagar la Luz, by the legendary and late-singer Armando Manzanero, here adapted as a wistful solo piano work. Meanwhile on the dizzying ride of Humpty Dumpty the pianist pays homage to another idol: Chick Corea, by revisiting the sparkling composition of the recently-deceased piano maestro.
It is hard not to be mesmerised by this spirited and finely nuanced music artfully crafted in an album by Adrien Brandeis, a pianist who is about to take the world by storm with a recording that is going to be one of the finest by any musician located outside the Latin American sub-continent.
Tracks – 1: Huachi Huachi; 2: Alegría; 3: Pancho’s Power; 4: Ek balam; 5: Un peu d’espoir; 6: Vizcaíno’s Blues; 7: Tierra de oportunidades; 8: Humpty Dumpty; 9: La buena vibra; 10: Voy a apagar la luz
Musicians – Adrien Brandeis: piano; Giliard Lopes: contrabass; José Loria Triay: drums; Roberto Vizcaíno Jr: congas and bàtá drums. Featuring – Roberto Vizcaíno Guillot: percussion [1, 6]; Horacio “El Negro” Hernández: drums 
Released – 2022
Label – Mantodea Music Productions
Runtime – 58:25
YouTube Video – Adrien Brandeis – Siempre más allá (EPK)
YouTube Audio – Adrien Brandeis – Vizcaíno’s Blues
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