Along with musicians like drummer Dafnis Prieto and saxophonist Yosvany Terry, pianist Manuel Valera is one of the most visible Cuban musicians in New York combining the music of his homeland with the sounds and forms of modern jazz. In his flagship group, New Cuban Express (whose debut album was nominated for a Grammy in 2013), Valera takes Cuban styles like Timba and uses their rhythmic energy to power the band’s improvisational flights of fancy.
But Valera’s Cuban heritage makes up only a part of his musical personality; he’s also a dedicatee of the post-bop piano tradition from Bill Evans through Chick Corea and beyond. On Saturday, Valera will perform at The Jazz Gallery, showing his jazz piano bona fides with a new trio featuring bassist Hans Glawischnig and drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts. We caught up with Manuel by phone to talk about the joys and challenges of playing in a piano trio, and how his music bridges the gap between his Cuban heritage and his life in New York.
The Jazz Gallery: Recently, you’ve been working with larger groups like New Cuban Express and jazz combos augmented with classical wind sections or string quartets. What made you want to go back to a trio for this show?
Manuel Valera: I wanted to do something different for this gig at The Jazz Gallery. I’ve been playing with Jeff “Tain” Watts really often lately and we were talking about doing something with a trio. The opportunity came around and he was available, and I thought it would be a really cool thing to play a trio with him and Hans Glawischnig, so it’s really exciting.
TJG: What do you like in particular about working with a trio versus a larger group? What does it allow you to do differently?
MV: Essentially, it’s a lot more open. In my larger groups, I generally end up writing a lot more: there are a lot more sections of tunes, there’s through-composed stuff. With a trio, the tunes can be less involved and they can reflect more of the personality of the other musicians—as opposed to the New Cuban Express, where the vision that I have for that is not super strict, but it has some limitations. There are some grooves and section changes that are sort of set, and they sort of have to be that way. With the trio it’s more open, and instead of writing too much I just like to hire musicians that I really like and have them do their thing over my maps.
TJG: You said you’ve been playing with Jeff “Tain” Watts a lot recently, both in his groups and in your groups. What do you like about his playing that comes out in a trio setting?
MV: I knew about Jeff way before he knew about me. I’ve been listening to him on recordings with Kenny Kirkland, Branford Marsalis, and Kenny Garrett for a long time. I’ve always been an immense fan of his; he’s probably my favorite drummer of all time—at least my favorite drummer alive today. He’s aggressive, but he can be gentle too. The amazing thing is that everything he can play loud, he can also play super soft. His sound on his instrument is really amazing; the stuff that he plays is so him. There’s really no parallel. A lot of people try to imitate him, but when you hear him play, you realize the people that are imitating him are far, far from the real thing. He’s a great composer. I’m really a fan of all the aspects of his musicianship. It’s really a thrill to play my tunes with him.
TJG: You mention how you like Jeff as a composer as well as a drummer. Do you like working with musicians who can think like composers when improvising in a trio setting?
MV: For sure, especially the drummer. I really need a drummer, whether playing my music or even just standards, that can really orchestrate things. If you’re not really orchestrating the music, then it sounds like they’re not actually there to me. Drummers that are composers are particularly good at orchestrating things and making sure that it’s not always all the same, and Jeff is one of the greatest at doing that.
TJG: Your music straddles two worlds—your Cuban roots and the cosmopolitan environment of New York. Do you feel a tension between these two parts of your music, or does it feel more like a natural fit?
MV: I feel that the hybrid of the two things for me has always been super natural. For one, I grew up in Cuba, but my father is a really well-known jazz saxophone player there. At home when I was younger, all I listened to was jazz. In the streets, all I listened to was Timba and other Cuban music from the time, so the integration of the two things has always been sort of easy.
Most of my tunes have clavé in them, even if they’re not Cuban-style tunes. Even when I write something that’s more straight-eighths, ECM-type things, it also has clavé in it. And it all sort of grooves because the way we as humans listen to and create music is generally groovy. The whole “no time” with just a melody, avant-garde thing is something that we as listeners have to work on a little bit, because those things are very foreign to us. The whole groove thing is very important to me, whether it’s Cuban or funk or whatever.
When I listen to a Cuban pianist like Chucho Valdés, or someone like Bill Evans or Red Garland, there’s a connection between the two worlds. When I listen to drummer Elvin Jones at a slower tempo, it sounds almost Afro-Cuban—the way he plays the triplets under the ride cymbal pattern. When things are colliding with each other, something good usually comes out.
TJG: It feels like you’re looking for common roots between Cuban music and jazz, like there’s a common source for Elvin Jones’s drumming and Afro-Cuban rhythmic patterns.
MV: Yeah. Elvin’s drumming has that essence. I’m not sure, but I think that he at least was exposed to Afro-Cuban rhythms to begin with, because it really sounds connected to that tradition to me.
TJG: Or like how the thinking behind Coltrane-style modal jazz is not that far removed from playing over a montuno in a Cuban context.
MV: Well, maybe to some extent. I think harmony is actually the one area where Cuban music didn’t really evolve as much as compared to jazz. It did in some sense with the Filin movement in the 1960s, with boleros that had harmonic progressions that sounded like jazz standards, but I think overall the American musicians were more adventurous harmonically, while Cuban musicians were more adventurous rhythmically.
TJG: So you’re taking this Cuban rhythmic backbone and combining it with more colorful modern jazz harmonies.
MV: Yeah, totally. I’m trying to take the best things out of both worlds. And that dialogue isn’t anything new. Before the revolution, American artists would come to Cuba all the time and play at the Tropicana Club, for example. People like Stan Getz used to go there all the time, Philly Joe Jones, Woody Herman’s orchestra. All these bands would go to Cuba, so all the local musicians were really exposed to jazz.
There’s actually a cool story about this Cuban drummer Guillermo Barreto. Woody Herman was coming to Havana and the drummer couldn’t make the flight, or something happened, and so Guillermo played the whole week in Woody Herman’s band; he knew all the music. I think before the revolution the two musical societies were much closer together.
TJG: This cross-cultural dialogue between jazz and Cuban music has opened up much more recently, especially in New York with musicians like you and Dafnis Prieto and Yosvany and Yunior Terry. How important has it been for you to have this musical community in the city?
MV: It’s been great. We speak the same language—not only literally, but we speak the same musical language. When Yosvany and Dafnis play my music it fits like a glove, and it’s the same when I play their music. I’ve been playing with Dafnis for almost ten years in all these different bands. There’s definitely a common bond with the way we grew up, the way we were taught, but we’re always searching for new stuff, too.
Pianist Manuel Valera performs at The Jazz Gallery on Saturday, March 22, with bassist Hans Glawischinig and drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts. Sets are 9 and 11 p.m. $20 general admission ($10 for members). Purchase tickets here.