Manuel Valera hasn’t gotten as much attention as other Cuban emigré pianists like Gonzalo Rubalcaba and David Virelles. He hit the U.S. scene as a 23-year-old hotshot in 2004 with a flashy debut album, Forma Nueva. The Seasons is his 13th recording as a leader. Originals like “Opening” and “In the Eye of the Beholder” prove that he is still a champ. His chops enable him to execute ornate designs at warp speed, while generating ferocious rhythmic thrust. His collaborators here, bassist Hans Glawischnig and drummer E. J. Strickland, are major factors in that thrust.
Valera’s facility may sometimes be his trap. He thinks in large concepts, but his improvisations can be predictable. Often he repeats similar processes of theme statement/clever elaboration/relentless acceleration. The album’s title sequence is ambitious; fortunately it is not another jazz version of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. It is Valera’s personal meditation on the universal paradigms of spring’s fecundity, summer’s passion, autumn’s harvest and winter’s finality. He hints at Vivaldi’s melodies but quickly overwhelms them with new content and jazz energy. All four movements of his suite contain Valera’s typical gathering intensity. But each keeps returning to its structure. The combination of Baroque formality and rampant spontaneity is interesting.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Valera is committed to interpretation as well as composition. “Tres Palabras,” by Osvaldo Farrés, is played relatively straight and hypnotic, as only a bolero can be. Valera is a percussive pianist who is capable of being lilting and literal. He makes the excellent decision to end his album with “Hallelujah.” He spills a prologue in free fall, then carefully marks out Leonard Cohen’s greatest, strangest incantation of love lost. Valera captures the brave resignation in the song’s sadness. The best jazz piano interpretation of “Hallelujah” is by Danilo Rea, on his album Doctor 3. Valera’s version is a close second.