Just as hands are wrung about the future of jazz, particularly as pioneers of the art form pass, along comes another jazz artist, not to fill the void, but to augment with even more innovations the already staggering wealth of original forms of music. Ever since jazz gradually was identified as an art form unto itself as the accumulated weight of the evidence overwhelmed in the 1990’s even the Pulitzer Prize committee which awarded Wynton Marsalis the Pulitzer Prize for Music after denying it to Duke Ellington 30 years earlier it appears that styles such as swing or bebop go through life cycles, even as jazz is here to stay. Now, along comes Manuel Valera, whose age of 23 belies the depth of his musical imagination as he, among the burgeoning ranks of other noteworthy young musicians, broadens the language of the music through personalized vision. Having recorded two CD’s under his leadership and with release of a third one, Ballads And Songs, Vol. I,
imminent, Valera has surrounded himself with equally talented musicians in their twenties and early thirties.
Even though Valera was born and raised in Cuba, his intent on Melancholía
is the expansion of jazz themes through a symbiosis of musical genres, including Latin, to be sure. But the influences in Melancholía
are as European as Latin, as classical as folkloric. Some of Valera’s motives early in the CD hint at classical influences, such as "Yesterday’s Song," and he does
incorporate a string quartet in some of his arrangements. However, the jazz-based modulations add even more richness to the mixture as Valera’s arrangements take ideas from several genres and combine them. As a result, what Valera has achieved reflects his own experiences, from his upbringing in Havana where his father performed with Gonzalo Rubalcaba (though Valera played saxophone at the time) to his immersion in the music of Keith Jarrett to his studies of the classical repertoire.
Early in the CD, there are hints of classical motives, especially on "Yesterday’s Song," on which tenor saxophonist Seamus Blake plays the straightforward melody at first. But still, the European harmonies merge with those of Cuba as the song moves, after the dynamically connective middle section, to references of danzones,
which initially were European-derived as well. In addition, the strings provide a fine texture behind Blake as percussionist Luisito Quintero lightly infuses the song with the charms of wind chimes, bells, blocks and conga work.
The strings’ involvement becomes plainly apparent when they introduce over the course of a single minute Rachmaninoff’s "Prelude In C# Minor," normally performed on piano. However, in Valera’s hands, the piece sets up the occasion for contrasting styles as the quartet’s traditional reading leads into a roiling 6/8 version enlivened by Blake’s soprano saxophone,Valera improvising with ever-increasing intensity on the theme over the quartet’s descending harmonies.
"O Melancholia," Sylvio Rodriguez’s composition and also one of the favorite songs of Valera’s mother, consists of a two-note flutter comprising the melody as the harmonies shift under Blake’s affecting performance, unaffected and involving a tonal purity drawing attention to the song’s emotional potential.
The remainder of Melancholía
consists of Valera’s compositions as he proves himself to be an imaginative composer as well as an astute arranger. With an ever-present lyricism, Valera values the lines of melody driving a song and expressing its content, even without words, and much of his work involves minor keys, such as "While She Sleeps," a thoughtful and cogently performed composition started by Valera’s straightforward initial statement of the theme. The fact of Valera’s prominence on "While She Sleeps" leads to the realization that Melancholía
isn’t a showcase for his piano playing. His next solo album, Ballads And Songs, Vol. I,
will make evident make his performance skills. Rather, on Melancholía
Valera intends to find an outlet for his compositions through the expressiveness of his own quintet, not to mention the string quartet as well. On "Alibi," Valera allows his group(s) to proceed as if of its own momentum until he comes in with jagged accents, somewhat Chick Corea-ish, as if he doesn’t want the listener to become too comfortable with the sound.
With an already matured approach that no doubt will deepen as he further reinforces his already identifiable style, Manuel Valera has avoided ornamentation and technical excesses for a cohesive sound that comprehensively borrows influences from around the world.