By Thomas Conrad
In today’s jazz scene, it is not easy for a new piano player to get noticed. In 2004, shortly after his 23rd birthday, Manuel Valera released his debut recording, Forma Nueva. It got noticed. Thomas Conrad, in his monthly column on piano recordings for JazzTimes, wrote, “What is impressive about Forma Nueva is not…Valera’s command of the keyboard, which approaches Brad Mehldau-levels of completeness. It is rather the elegance with which he shapes his high-energy expressiveness into intricate, flowing musical wholes.”
Like Conrad, Howard Mandel, as President of the Jazz Journalists Association, hears a lot of pianists. He called Valera “a young man so accomplished that his potential seems boundless.”
Forma Nueva was such a mature work from a player so young that Manuel Valera seemed to have come out of nowhere. In fact, like so many interesting voices on the current jazz scene, he came out of Cuba. But his history is uncharacteristic, because he studied European music and classical saxophone at the Manuel Saumell Conservatory in Havana, and left Cuba when he was 14. Valera says, “I was in Cuba long enough to get the culture. Cuban music is an undeniable part of my heritage and colors my writing. But I don’t consider myself a ‘Latin jazz’ artist.”
Indeed, what made Forma Nueva so fresh was its creative eclecticism. The metric sophistication and urgent energy of Hispanic music was present, in rhythms from Cuba and also from Venezuela and Puerto Rico and Brazil. But the rhythmic content was implicit rather than primary. Valera’s compositions for trio and quartet, and his own piano work, showed he had internalized sources within the great jazz piano tradition (Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly, Oscar Peterson), and also revealed his reverence for and study of composers like Debussy and Ravel.
Valera says that, even before he left Cuba, he had begun to suspect that the saxophone was not his instrument. When he arrived in the United States, both English and the piano were new means of expression, and, remarkably, he quickly taught himself both. His musical education in Havana had been rigorous and disciplined, and he was already an excellent reader. The piano came quickly because Valera believes it is his “natural instrument.”
His family moved several times after first arriving in the United States. (Valera’s father is a saxophonist, also named Manuel, who has played with Paquito D’Rivera and Tito Puente.) Valera attended high school in New Jersey and Miami, matriculated at Florida State University in Tallahassee, then transferred to the institution that has turned out a disproportionate percentage of today’s best young jazz players: The New School in Manhattan. By the time he graduated he had started composing, had studied under George Garzone and Jane Ira Bloom, and had also studied privately with pianists Richie Beirach and Phil Markowitz: “not piano lessons but conceptual things, how to approach tunes.”
Forma Nueva created a buzz on the street. Valera became busy as a sideman with artists such as D’Rivera, Brian Lynch, Dafnis Prieto, and Donny McCaslin. But he was committed to pursuing a career as composer and bandleader. In 2005 he released his second album, Historia. When he released his third album in 2006, Thomas Conrad wrote in JazzTimes, “Melancholia verifies that Manuel Valera’s 2004 recording debut, Forma Nueva, was what it seemed: the introduction of a major new talent.” Valera’s recordings continued to explore the trio and quartet formats, and continued to attract the best young players in New York. (John Patitucci had played bass on the first album. Antonio Sánchez played drums on the second and third. Seamus Blake was on reeds on all three.) Melancholia also employed a string quartet on several tracks that opened up new vistas of compositional colors and textures across the full range of Valera’s sources, from Rachmaninoff to Silvio Rodriguez. It also revealed a deepening interpretive sensitivity as a pianist.
By now, not only strong reviews in the jazz press, but formal accolades and awards were beginning to accumulate. Valera received an ASCAP Young Composers Award in 2005, and a New Works Commission from Chamber Music America in 2006. Twice, in 2004 and 2006, he took second place in the Great American Jazz Piano Competition in Jacksonville, Florida.
Valera is still young and still developing as an artist, and it would not be appropriate to describe his new album, Vientos, as any kind of culmination. But it is a breakthrough to a new level. There is an important new label affiliation (Anzic), an exciting new musical relationship (with saxophonist Joel Frahm), and a brand new means of expression (the woodwind quintet).
Valera says that he discovered his fascination for the “richness and sonority” of this instrumentation in woodwind sections within orchestral pieces by Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, and Shostakovich. He also looked at compositions written specifically for woodwind ensembles, like Elliott Carter’s “Eight Etudes And A Fantasy” for Wind Quartet and Darius Milhaud’s La Cheminée du Roi René. The quintet that Valera uses on seven of the 12 tracks of Vientos is “modified,” in that there is a bass clarinet instead of a French horn. The ensemble includes Anne Drummond (flute, alto flute), Anat Cohen (clarinet), Charles Pillow (bass clarinet, English horn), Aaron Heick (oboe, English horn), and Michael Rabinowitz (bassoon). Most of them are fully fluent jazz improvisers, but none of them solo on Vientos. Valera wanted the woodwinds to remain “true to the classical sound.”
The remark is telling. In the early 1960’s, there were several highly publicized but (by critical consensus) unsuccessful attempts to merge classical music and jazz into a “third stream.” Now, nearly half a century later, young musicians of the world like Manuel Valera are achieving that elusive third (or fourth?) stream (without giving it the name) because their musical language draws naturally on the genres in which they were trained and on those they came to love. Such artists do not think in musical categories.
Valera is not wrong about the special richness of the sonorities available from a woodwind quintet. A piece like “A La Interpretie” contains ambitious achievements across the board: an indelible melody developed in shifting patterns of shadow and light from the woodwinds; a piano solo in huge swirling spirals (enhanced by the woodwinds’ direct reaction or subtle undertow); a soprano saxophone celebration from Joel Frahm that approaches ecstatic release but then curves back into form with the woodwinds’ return. Throughout Vientos, Valera discovers continuous revelations with the woodwinds, in the inner parts and details, and in the varied parallel doublings and unisons. He also creatively integrates the ensemble with an improvising jazz quartet, with the woodwinds whispering chords behind the soloists, or tracing delicate counterlines. The final track on the album, and the shortest, and the most haunting, is “Veléz.” It has a poised, hovering majesty reminiscent of the Miles Davis/Gil Evans masterpiece, Sketches Of Spain.
Vientos is a work in which solos are elements of an over-arching design. But those solos, when they come, are often extraordinary. Valera’s piano playing is more complex and more lyrical than anything in his previous work, and in Frahm he has found the most powerful musical partner of his career to date. The tracks with the woodwinds will get the most attention, but the best of the quartet performances are important additions to Valera’s body of work. “Danzón Para Lisa,” written for Valera’s wife on their first anniversary, is graceful and quietly fervent. “Elegía” has a simple melody so inevitable it should become a standard. Joel Frahm’s tenor solo is equal measures of sorrow and passionate praise. It is for Michael Brecker, who died the day before it was recorded.