This is Valera's fifth release as a leader and his first on the MAXJAZZ label as part of their Piano Series. Cuban-born, Valera emigrated to the United States in 1994 at the age of 14 after already having studied classical saxophone for several years at Havana's Manuel Saumell Conservatory. Just a year later he was recording as a sideman on sax with Cuban jazz artists such as pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba and trombonist J.P. Torres; in 1999, still only 18 years old, he recorded with Latin jazz star Paquito d'Rivera on Tropicana Nights, d'Rivera's big band tribute to the famous Tropicana casino in Havana.
However by this time Valera was already migrating his musical passions from the sax to piano and composition, having enrolled in New York's New School jazz program. He recorded his debut as a jazz pianist and composer, Forma Nueva ("New Form") in 2003.
From the sound of Currents, Manuel Valera is taking his jazz seriously. The surest sign of this is the shift he makes here to tackle several jazz standards in addition to his own compositions, which were almost the exclusive content of his prior recordings. This takes courage. Valera knows he is treading on sacred ground, playing tunes that so many famous musicians before him have explored: "How Deep Is the Ocean," "I Fall In Love Too Easily," and "I Loves You Porgy." Perhaps to underline his statement that he is coming into his own as a jazz pianist, he even offers up his rendition of Thelonious Monk's whimsical "We See."
Valera's piano is clean and forceful, his improvisations fresh and often punctuated with unexpected riffs. He can most definitely swing, but his ballad playing is equally on point in ranging from delicate and understated to passionately expressive. While his heritage is Latin jazz, Currents proves that is not a label that will define him.
This record is all the better for Valera's partners on the effort, James Genus on bass and Ernesto Simpson on drums. Genus is a ubiquitous studio bassist with credits on the records of a who's who of recording artists across jazz genres. Both his rhythm and solo work here are rock solid, whether he's swinging on the acoustic bass or laying more fusion-tinged foundations for tunes like "Hindsight" and "Currents," the record's namesake and closer. Drummer Ernesto Simpson is perhaps a bit less well known in general jazz circles but he's building a strong list of recording credits for Latin jazz artists including the likes of Arturo Sandoval. Here he demonstrates that, like Valera, he is not limited to the Latin genre as he drives the bop-oriented tunes with confidence.Currents is an excellent jazz record that firmly establishes Manuel Valera as break-out jazz pianist for the new generation of jazz musicians carrying the mainstream flag. Kudos also to MAXJAZZ for a fine technical recording, well-mixed and balanced. Definitely a record anyone who loves trio jazz and new talent will want to own.