Although he’s never strayed that far from Afro-Cuban jazz traditions in his music, neither has the Havana-born Manuel Valera restricted himself to them. For Self Portrait, his debut solo piano recording, he ventures even further afield, using the occasion to showcase other key influences: Three numbered “Impromptu” pieces (one each for George Gershwin, Erik Satie and Nicolas Slonimsky) draw upon Valera’s classical training, while his admiration for archetypal jazz pianists turns up in a trio of covers (Monk, Bill Evans and Bud Powell). Those tracks and two more interpretations—of boleros by the Cuban Eliseo Grenet and Mexican singer-songwriter Agustín Lara—are balanced by five more originals from Valera, adding up to a solid cross-section of his abilities.
As impressive and revealing as the covers and tributes are, those five stand-alone Valera compositions provide just as much insight into who this artist is. On tracks such as “Spiral,” which opens the program, “Hope” and “Water,” Valera is ruminative and serene; never indulgent, he stays close to the root melodies. While his technique is off the charts, he’s sparing in his use of velocity and atonality, more concerned with establishing and maintaining emotions. An exception is “Improvisation,” wherein Valera allows himself to fly, but even then he’s careful not to lose his footing.
Self Portrait opens up new vistas for Manuel Valera. It’ll be interesting to see how—that is to say, if—he revisits and expands upon some of these ideas in his group recordings.