Manuel Valera and the New Cuban Express to Open this Year’s Jazz Weekend
This year’s Lake George Jazz Weekend opens on Saturday, September 13 with pianist Manuel Valera and the New Cuban Express.
Valera, who has released seven albums as a soloist and band leader, performed at the 2012 festival with John Benitez’s group; Benitez also plays electric bass in Valera’s quintet.
“Valera’s playing blew me away,” said Jazz festival founder Paul Pines. “He has a touch that enables him to shift from Latin to other forms, which is rare among Latin jazz pianists. He has an incredible vocabulary, even when he’s not playing his own compositions.”
The New Cuban Express is Valera’s first band to emphasize Cuban jazz.
As Valera was born in Havana, that may seem surprising.
“We were not that into Cuban jazz,” said Valera, who grew up in a jazz household. His father, Manuel Valera, Sr., is a noted alto sax player.
“My father introduced me to jazz, and what we listened to at home was the California cool jazz of the 1950s and 60s: Bill Evans, Paul Desmond, Chet Baker. That was the first music I heard,” said Valera.
For musicians of Valera’s father’s generation, American jazz was no longer readily available.
“There were no record stores; people exchanged tapes,” said Valera. “Before Castro came to power, Cuba was a musical extension of the United States. All the big bands played here. But even after the revolution, every form of American art remained popular.”
Valera entered a conservatory at the age of nine, one of only two students admitted that year to study the classical saxophone.
“In Cuba, at the conservatory, everyone has to study the piano, and once I started, I knew that was the instrument for me,” said Valera. He dropped the saxophone at the age of 13.
Valera and his family emigrated to the United States when he was 14, first to Miami and then to New York.
There, he fell in love with the music of Charlie Parker and pianists such as Bud Powell and Red Garland.
“I gravitated toward east coast jazz and away from west coast jazz, probably because the rhythm sections are more heavily involved. My love for that music has never really left me,” said Valera.
And once in New York, Valera discovered Latin Jazz and its Cuban varieties.
According to Paul Pines, it would not be atypical for a Cuban jazz pianist to come to appreciate Afro-Cuban music only after he had moved to New York.
“I think for a lot of Cuban kids of Manuel Valera’s generation, Afro-Cuban music was not part of the musical experience; American pop culture was,” said Pines.
Nevertheless, said Pines, “that music was in the air; it was implicit in everything.”
A composer as versatile and innovative as Valera would find it especially appealing, said Pines.
“Rhythmically, harmonically, Afro-Cuban music has a great potential to renew jazz; when the music becomes stale or over-intellectualized, Afro-Cuban rhythms liberate it,” said Pines.
The new waves of Cuban musicians “incorporate traditional sounds in a new way; that’s what Manuel Valera does; he’s renewing Cuban jazz and making it newly powerful,” said Pines.
Gypsy jazz vocalist Cyrille Aimee and her quintet will take the stage at 2:45, followed by Steve Bernstein and, at 7:30 pm, Anat Cohen and her quartet.
Sunday’s line-up includes Billy Martin’s Wicked Knee, Jane Bunnett and her band of female Cuban All-Stars and the Raymond Scott Orchestrette.
“Every performer at this year’s festival has a dynamism and intensity that puts them way up on the jazz roster,” said Pines.