Manuel Valera Trio
The Planets

Since exploding in the New York jazz scene in the early 2000s, Cuban pianist and composer Manuel Valera has not been one to settle on just one musical path or take the safe bet. In his most recent release, The Planets, he again raises the ante.

Its centerpiece is a new composition, commissioned by Chamber Music America/Doris Duke 2017 New Jazz Works program, in which Valera set up for himself several challenges at once: create a multi-movement suite inspired by the solar system; write it using a harmonic and melodic language based on Nicolas Slonimsky’s Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns, and perform it with just his trio, comprising long-time collaborators Hans Glawischnig on bass and E.J. Strickland on drums.

For his impressions, Valera drew from both, the astronomical characteristics of each planet and also their mythological associations. The titles of the movements allude to their character — “Mars Ancient Warrior,” “Neptune Prophet of the Seas,” or “Venus Peace” — and one can hear turmoil on “Earth The History of Us,” or the meditative spirit of “Saturn The Wise One.”

That said, because Valera limited himself to only a few scales and a rather austere, tightly controlled harmonic language, what he gains in consistency, he risks in a certain overall sameness. Also, the severity of Slonimsky’s approach makes the music much more appealing intellectually than emotionally. Notably, the playing throughout is both remarkably resourceful and disciplined. Think of contemporary actors improvising in Shakespearean Theater style, never straying from the language and syntax of the period. When after 50 minutes plus, the bonus tracks (readings of Marta Valdés’ “Llora,” and Elton John’s “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters”) come up, the contrast is startling.
It suggests a movie suddenly changing from black and white to color — and it’s also a reminder of Valera’s talent to create a universe with different rules of gravity.


This review first appeared in JAZZIZ magazine.



El Eco with Guillermo Nojechowicz
Puerto de Buenos Aires 1933

Boston-based Argentine drummer, composer and bandleader Guillermo Nojechowicz probably never imagined that Puerto de Buenos Aires 1933, his deeply personal meditation about his grandmother’s immigrant story, fleeing Warsaw with her child as Adolf Hitler was coming to power in Germany, would be set against the backdrop of an immigration crisis that would put to the test core values of his adopted country.

Leading his multinational quintet El Eco, Nojechowicz tells the story with a gentle touch and a cinematic feel. It speaks of dread, hope and, yes, new beginnings. The title suite, which extends over 8 of the 10 tracks, includes hints at post-Piazzolla tango and Argentine folk music but also draws from Uruguayan and Brazilian music. Throughout, the performances by Nojechowicz, vocalist Kim Nazarian, saxophonist Marco Pignataro, pianist Helio Alves, bassist Fernando Huergo, and guest trumpeter Brian Lynch are consistently forceful and sensitive. Don’t expect look-at-me soloing here, the story is the story and their focus and restraint add to its power.

Noe Nojechowicz, the three-year-old who escaped terror and certain early death in Poland with his mom, ended up in Argentina and grew up to become a celebrated painter. His son, Guillermo, has long become a much-respected musician and educator in the United States.

Two immigrant stories, two reminders.

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Notable recent releases :

So big bands were dead, oh, 50 years ago … Well, not quite. Bobby Sanabria Multiverse Big BandWest Side Story Reimagined (Jazzheads). An adventurous and imaginative take on Leonard Bernstein’s classic, just in time for the celebration of what would have been the composer’s 100th birthday and the debate on race relations in this country. Brazilian pianist, composer, and arranger Antonio Adolfo, Encontros Orquesta Atlantica (AAM). Brazilian big band jazz in the first large ensemble recording by Maestro Adolfo. Pedro Giraudo and the WDR BigBand An Argentinean in New York (Zoho). Argentine bassist, composer and bandleader Pedro Giraudo’s adds to his impressive work with large ensembles.

Cuban saxophonist Román Filiú, Quartería (Sunnyside). Not your standard Afro-Cuban jazz release by a player to watch. Kip Hanrahan Crescent Moon Waning  (American Clave) The welcome return on record of one of the most creative and honest musicians/producers/conceptualizers in progressive jazz/avant-global music. Hendrik Meurkens /Bill Cunliffe Cabin In The Sky (Height Advantage) Very elegant pairing of harmonica an piano. Cuban pianist and composer Dayramir GonzálezThe Grand Concourse. (Machat) A notable sophomore effort that runs from street-wise Afro-Cuban rhythms to chamber music. Miguel de Armas Quartet What’s to Come (MDA) Debut recording by Cuban pianist De Armas, a founding member of NG La Banda, the fabled 90s timba group.

More on these releases in coming weeks.