Melancholia verifies that Manuel Valera’s 2004 recording debut, Forma Nueva, was what it seemed: the introduction of a major new talent.
Many current players create interest through a synergy of technical facility, postbop jazz fluency and Hispanic cultural roots. Valera is one of them, but his aesthetic vision is more universal. He is from Cuba, with piano chops of doom, and Melancholia is a rich, diverse program of sustained creativity, presenting the leader’s fresh, complex writing and also Rachmaninoff (“Prelude in C# Minor”) and Cuban composer Silvio Rodriguez (the title track).
Valera’s strong band includes Seamus Blake (back from Forma Nueva) on reeds, Ben Street on bass, Antonio Sánchez (now with Pat Metheny) on drums and Luisito Quintero on percussion. A four-piece string section joins on several tracks, most notably “Yesterday’s Song,” a swirling ballad with Blake on tenor, and the Rachmaninoff piece, which begins with a stately string introduction and then begins to throb to a Venezuelan joropo rhythm.
Valera’s sophisticated compositions, and his deft, light touch with strings, stimulate consistently intriguing solos. Blake, especially on soprano, is a voice both affectingly plaintive and articulate. Valera makes one powerful piano statement after another, his speed and complexity and chiming touch always building a story.