Interview and story by J Hunter

It’s physically impossible to not have a good time when a hot Afro-Cuban band is on its game, and Manuel Valera & New Cuban Express – who play at A Place for Jazz in Schenectady on Friday (October 16) – were most definitely on their game when they played a rain-drenched Jazz at the Lake in 2014: Their self-titled 2012 debut was nominated for a Grammy in 2013, and they were about to release their third disc In Motion on Criss Cross. But while “traditional” A-C bands tend to focus on vocals and showmanship, New Cuban Express is a muscular hybrid of driving Latin rhythms and modern jazz sensibilities. Reed wizard/percussionist Yosvany Terry (who blew us all away at JATL) is the kind of player that thinks outside the box from the moment his alarm goes off, and resonant bassman Hans Glawischnig has backed certified killers like Donny McCaslin and Rez Abbasi. Put these musicians next to killer percussionists like Ludwig Afonso and Mauricio Herrera, and you get Afro-Cuban with depth and scope that can’t be measured by standard yardsticks.

And then there’s Valera himself, who has been on the jazz scene’s radar for over a decade. Since emigrating from Cuba in 2000 to enter the New School in NYC, Valera has chalked up 11 recordings as a leader: His 2004 debut Forma Nueva featured John Patitucci, Seamus Blake, Bill Stewart and Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez. He’s backed up heavyweight champions like Arturo Sandoval, Paquito D’Rivera and John Benitez, and is one of the reasons why Essiet Okon Essiet’s massive release Shona is one of the best jazz discs of 2015. But while he can pound out the rhythms like Eddie Palmieri, Valera’s own creative base is more classically driven, with icons like Bill Evans, Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett popping their heads up when Valera breaks out into the clear, as he did with outstanding results at Lake George.

It was those quiet moments that made me rejoice when the Manuel Valera Trio released Live at Firehouse 12 earlier this year. Backed only by Glawischnig and drummer E.J. Strickland, Valera stepped into the arena where his heroes truly made their names as creators, composers, and improvisers. The stripped-out line-up seemed to free Valera’s inner tiger, letting him roar and rage when the situation called for it, and bring a hush to the New Haven venue when that was the way to go. The refined nuance and splendid colors Valera used to paint his images let vibrant originals like “Spiral” and “Distancia” sit cheek-by-jowl with Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints” and 19th-century Italian composer Pietro Mascagni’s “Intermezzo Mascagni’s “Intermezzo Sinfonico.”

And Valera’s not done wowing us with his range. Next month comes the release of Urban Landscapes, a wild reboot of ’70s electric jazz and R&B memes that will have us all dancing into 2016. This time Valera gets to pair Strickland and Benitez as a rhythm section, as well as play with Jazz2K monsters like reedman John Ellis and guitar wizard Nir Felder on a roaring brace of originals that give friendly nods to the past while keeping the vibe firmly in the present. Trust me, you’re gonna like this one a LOT!

As you may have guessed, I like Valera a lot, which is why I was so pleased that he was willing to take a few minutes and discuss what’s on his mind, his resume, and his agenda:

Q: I know it was over a year ago, but do you have any memories of your rainy day at Jazz at the Lake?

A: I remember we had to change to an inside venue because of the weather, but the crowd was incredible. We had a blast!

Q: Yosvany Terry played reeds on that show, and on all three New Cuban Express releases. Is it just me or is he one of the most interesting musicians in the game today?

A: He is definitely up there! He is one of my favorite saxophonists and composers out there today – an original voice. Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of working with his group, too, and that’s always a lot of fun, as well.

Q: “In Motion” is the third disc for New Cuban Express. How has the band grown and/or changed from that first recording in 2012?

A: The obvious difference on In Motion is that this is a more acoustic version of the band. For this recording, we added Alex Sipiagin on trumpet, as well as the incredible Hans Glawischnig on acoustic bass. On this recording, you can really hear the growth and fruits of a band that plays together a lot.

Q: You had a few introspective moments at Lake George, but nothing like the beauty you and your rhythm section created on “Live at Firehouse 12.” When did you start working with Glawischnig and Strickland in that configuration, and how did the Firehouse date come about?

A: That trio started working in the summer of 2014. We played a bunch of concerts before the live recording, and I think that shows. Doing a live recording is tricky because there is no room for fixing things, so everything has to be tight. The music is certainly more introspective than the Cuban Express material, but it’s none the less a part of my musicianship. I’ve always been a fan of introspective pianist/composers like Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, Paul Bley, et cetera.

Q: My favorite moment on “Firehouse” is that meditation you play at the front of “Footprints.” Although you and the group eventually work with the original melody and time signature, that moment in the clear only touches on Shorter’s composition, and the rest is all yours. How do you knit the two together in your mind?

A: Actually, Wayne Shorter has to be one of my biggest compositional influences, and the intro is based impressionistically on the harmony of “Footprints.” Doing “Footprints” on the record was tricky, because I wanted to do it differently but not so far from the original version Miles did. In the original, they play more like in 6/4, rather than the usual 6/8 feel for the song nowadays. There is also a plethora of not-so-great versions of this tune, so I was hoping that mine wouldn’t end up in that pile. (Laughs)

Q: You spent a block of time as a sideman, where you recorded with players like Dafnis Prieto, John Benitez, and Samuel Torres; you recently worked with Dafnis again on his latest release “Triangles and Circles.” What do you like about being just one of the boys in the band?

A: The obvious thing is that you don’t have to worry about the logistical details as when you lead your own band, and it can be refreshing to just show up. It’s also interesting to interpret the composer’s music and to work with a different team. I like to always bring something to the table and never be a fly on the wall. I’ve been fortunate enough that on most of the recordings I play as a sideman, I’m also heavily featured. A lot of drummers call me for their recordings and gigs, which is cool. The list is really great. I just recorded on Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts’ new record, playing a bunch of gigs with the bands of Ignacio Berroa, Clarence Penn, Dafnis Prieto, Lenny White, et cetera. It is really an honor.

Q: Speaking of sideman gigs, you’re also featured on one of my favorite recordings of this year, Essiet Okon Essiet’s “Shona.” How did you hook up with him, and did his previous work with Bobby Watson influence your choice to do the session?

A: I’ve known Essiet Okon Essiet for a long time. He is an amazing bassist-composer as well as a beautiful cat. Some of that recording was done while we where on tour in France, and the rest was done here in NYC. It also features Lionel Loueke and Tain Watts, two of my favorite musicians/improvisers in the world. I can relate to Lionel a lot because rhythmically, Africa is so close to Cuba, and we have an immediate connection. His phrasing is incredible, too. Jeff has to be my favorite drummer of all time. Groove stuff or straight ahead, he is incredible at all of it.

Q: In November, you’ll be releasing your second disc this year when “Urban Landscape” drops. While “Groove Square” shares a danceable element with New Cuban Eexpress, the vibe of this band is very different. When did this concept pop up, and what can you tell us about having Strickland and John Benitez as a rhythm section?

A: Some of the original idea for Groove Square came from New Cuban Express, but of course the end result went somewhere else completely, as it always does. I wanted to have a group where I only played keyboards, first of all, and also the material had to be a mixture of ’70s fusion, R&B and current electronica music. The band is also a bit of a reunion because John Ellis, E.J. Strickland and I went to the New School around the same time. John Benitez has been my partner in crime for a LONG time, and I consider Nir Felder to be one of the freshest voices on the guitar in a while.

Q: With all these new concepts and bands coming out, how do you feel about coming back to New Cuban Express? Is it a good feeling, or does it seem like revisiting old business?

A: The New Cuban Express always feels great. It’s almost like coming home!

Manuel Valera & New Cuban Express – featuring saxman Will Vinson, bassist Hans Glawischnig, drummer Ludwig Afonso and percussionist Mauricio Herrera – will play A Place For Jazz concert at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Schenectady’s Whisperdome in Schenectady at 7:30pm on Friday (October 16). Tickets are $15; $7 students; FREE children under age 12.

The band will also be performing at The Falcon in Marlboro at 7pm on Thursday (October 15). Donations are appreciated.

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