Pianist Manuel Valera
eginning in 2004 with Forma Nueva, Havana-born Manuel Valera’s sleek debut recording with a trio including bassist John Pattitucci and, on some cuts, saxophonist Seamus Blake, no two of the keyboardist’s dozen recordings have been alike. On obscure and less-obscure labels, Valera has led quartets, quintets, ensembles rippling with percussion, and those dressed out with woodwinds or strings or both. When he appears Wednesday, Oct. 18, at Gig Performance Space, he’ll be leading his trio, a setup that brings the ambitious composer’s work into sharp focus. In big groups or small, whether melding postbop jazz with Afro-Cuban rhythms, reaching into European classical music, the avant-garde, or some amalgam of his own making that’s difficult to label, there’s one constant found in his evolving sound. “I’ve never done away with my Cuban musical heritage. It’s really hard to avoid so I don’t try to. Even the compositions that may not sound Cuban, if we sat down and I explained it, if I showed the harmonics, the camouflage, they’d hear it.” A story from Valera’s days as pianist for Paquito D’Rivera, a saxophonist known to inject classical and other influences into Latin jazz, confirms it. After hearing Valera play some of his new compositions, Rivera remarked that there was one thing to be found in all his work: the clave, a rhythm common to the entirety of Latin jazz. “It’s always there,” Valera admitted, “in my composing, in my improvising; everything.”
Valera’s early musical experiences were a mix of Cuban, American, and European sounds. “Jazz and Cuban music came to me at the same time but through different channels,” he said. His father, Manuel Valera Sr., was a saxophonist who toured with various Cuban bands. “But in the house, he didn’t really embrace Cuban music,” Valera said. “We always listened to jazz: Chet Baker, Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans, Miles Davis. Out in the streets, I heard folkloric, timba, bands like [pop-Cuban hybrid ensemble] Los Van Van.” He also had formal music training, entering Havana’s historic Manuel Saumell Music Conservatory, an institution that produced internationally recognized pianists Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Chucho Valdes. Valera was nine when he began his studies and, like his father, was a saxophonist, though he sometimes sat in on piano in bands with his father.
Valera landed in the U.S. when he was fourteen. He turned fully to the piano, embracing the instrument’s harmonic potential. He spent a year living with his father in New York City at the age of fifteen. You might think that the infectious music scene there would have clinched his destiny. But when that year was up, Valera left for Florida not knowing if he wanted to be a musician or not. “I hadn’t developed a taste for practice or for getting into the music,” he said. In Florida, he dealt with his loneliness by going to the public library and checking out recordings from trumpeter Clifford Brown, pianist Keith Jarrett, and others. In 1998, he enrolled in Florida State University in Tallahassee. “That was a great cocoon for me. I was one of the few jazz pianists there and the practice rooms were open 24 hours a day. So I practiced a lot, five or six hours a day. At night, I could play with different people in different bands.” He was accepted to New York City’s The New School in 2000 and soon picked up a gig with Latin jazz percussionist Bobby Sanabria.
Valera’s reputation as an adventurous Afro-Cuban pianist spread, and soon he was working with drummer Dafnis Prieto (with whom he’s recorded three albums), D’Rivera, trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, and drummers Lenny White and Jeff “Tain” Watts, among others. “I was twenty-two, and this all seemed