WBGO Radar

Manuel Valera Trio: "Live At Firehouse 12"

manuel valera

On his new live trio album, pianist Manuel Valera finds a sweet spot where melody, dazzling technique and rhythmic drive converge.

Valera offers lyricism, drummer E.J. Strickland brings the drive and bassist Hans Glawischnig draws a bright line between the two on this CD, Live at Firehouse 12, recorded in New Haven in October of last year.

The album is the prolific Valera’s tenth as a leader, over eleven years. It’s his first live session, and hopefully a sign of things to come.

“Spiral," the album’s opener and longest track at over twelve minutes, sets the stage. Valera’s bright, open-hearted voicings are reminiscent of Keith Jarrett’s live improvisations.

As Strickland stokes the coals, the tune sets off to the races. Glawischnig confidently weighs in and makes clear he is a full partner in this musical conversation, rather than a support player.

The result is a marvel of musical equipoise, a conversation of peers that breathes new life into the piano trio.

Like fellow Cuban Chucho Valdes, Valera knows when to rein in his remarkable technical gifts, so his bandmates can shine. Yet his gifts are always here, ready to step in as needed.

The urbanity of Valera’s approach transcends easy categorization as “Latin” jazz, but the trio’s powerful rhythmic undercurrent owes something to Valdes and others in that tradition. It says more even more to the understated confidence, borne of virtuosity, shared by all three players.

“En Route” and “Lirico” take this rhythm-driven approach to new heights, without sacrificing the warmth and accessibility of the melodies.

“Wayne” is an homage to saxophonist Wayne Shorter, who is also represented by his standard “Footprints.”  The album’s only other “standard” is the bell-like melody of the  Intermezzo Sinfonico from Mascagni’s opera Cavalleria Rusticana, which listeners may know from the  Martin Scorsese film “Raging Bull.”

The album closes with “Century,” an exciting taste of uptempo post-bop, with enough twists to bust the chops of lesser players. But not these three. They brim with ideas, from start to finish. In fact, the track simply fades out even as the ideas tumble forth. This leaves the listener in anticipation of what is yet to come from these three. Perhaps they are playing still.

They will be playing together, for sure, at New York’s Jazz Standard on April 29, to celebrate the album’s release. Only a fool would miss it.

  - Tim Wilkins, WBGO digital content producer

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