Sometimes big lives require big bands. That’s what Cuban composer/pianist Manuel Valera discovered after he’d completed his 2013 Chamber Music Jazz Works commission for the project José Martí en Nueva York. Martí was the patron saint of Cuba, an activist/writer and fierce catalyst for the country’s independence from Spain, who martyred himself for the cause at age 42 at the Battle of Dos Rios in 1895. Four years earlier, exiled in New York, he completed Versos Sencillos, a book of poems regarded as his masterpiece. Valera composed music around nine of those poems and premiered the project with his New Cuban Express sextet in 2014. But he soon believed the material demanded a grander scope.
With the help of a Guggenheim Fellowship and the promise of a monthly residency at the Queens club Terraza 7, Valera expanded the score to accommodate a 20-piece band, plus female vocalist. On this recording, the work has been elegantly polished, celebrating the marriage of American jazz and Cuban rhythm with as much rigor and passion as it fêtes Martí. While there are obvious passages where you recognize the taut pirouette of danzon and the honeydrip of bolero, the orchestrations are more frequently reminiscent of the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Big Band’s taut swing and the tone poetry of Kenny Wheeler.
There isn’t a single clunker among the seven selections. Chilean rising star Camila Meza delivers the set’s best vocal on “Por Sus Ojos Encendidos,” a poem about (perhaps mistaken) jealousy, while the music threatens eruption yet ultimately recedes like waves in a harbor. On Martí’s indictment of Spain (the poem translates as “The Brutal Enemy”), Ricky Rodriguez’s liquid bass turn is tagged by a procession of stately percussion, then capped by blistering solos from guitarist Alex Goodman and conguero Mauricio Herrera. And the closer, “Si Quiere Que de Este Mundo,” is predictably rousing, with piquant solos from piano, trumpet, bari sax, and drums.
Valera wrote much of this music while his wife Lisa battled, and eventually succumbed, to cancer. He dedicates the album—which channels copious emotions into thrilling soundscapes—to her memory.