Music seems to just ooze from the mind and fingers of Manuel Valera.
Over the last few years, he’s released several recordings, among them
two with New Cuban Express, one solo piano effort and as a sideman to
his father, Manuel Valera Sr. Now with a new ensemble, Groove Square,
Valera delivers Urban Landscape (Destiny Records, 2015).
Valera plays Fender Rhodes, Minimoog, Prophet 08 and Hammond organ. With
him are John Ellis, tenor saxophone and bass clarinet; Nir Felder,
guitar; John Benitez, bass; E.J. Strickland and Jeff “Tain’ Watts,
drums; Gregoire Maret, harmonica; and Paula Stagnaro and Maurice
Guitar and tenor join for the melody of “121st Street.” The song has a
slight funk groove. After the first few lines, Ellis takes off on a
spirited jaunt. Benitez and Strickland remain locked in during the solo.
Then Valera takes a turn on the Rhodes. The melody resumes, setting up
Felder’s expressive solo during the finale.
Maret sits in for the tranquil “Gliding.” The music is slower, softer,
charming. The bass clarinet joins the harmonica for the lead before
splitting on its own. Velera and Felder take their turns as well. One of
the beauty parts is when Maret and Ellis resume the melody, while Felder
subtly stretches out underneath. Maret then goes exploring with both
Felder and Ellis mixing it up as the song ends.
Urban Landscape is Valera’s love letter to New York City. He
moved there in 2000, leaving his native Havana, Cuba. “Each song on the
record represents a different impression of the landscape of the city,”
he says. “And there is also the urban musical aspect. The music is
grounded in the rhythms of the African-American urban experience:
hip-hop, runk, R&B, soul music, etc.”
Whereas Valera’s other releases have been Latin jazz or straight jazz,
this record is fusion along the lines of what one might expect from
Steps Ahead, early Yellowjackets or early Fattburger. It’s more
electronic, and some sounds are layered.
A major plus for the session is that each song uses the group concept to
the fullest. Regardless of which instrument has the melody or solo, the
others leave an indelible mark, whether carrying the rhythm or
ad-libbing in the background. Benitez and the drummers are perhaps more
noticeable than the others. And for his part, Felder continues to
establish himself as a solid sideman, having performed or recorded with
such luminaries as Esperanza Spalding, Terri Lyne Carrington, Greg Osby,
Jack DeJohnette and others, as well as leading his own band.