Reviewing instrumental music is always a challenge. Finding a way to express in words what a song or album concept sounds like, and doing it in a manner that helps the reader make a decision on whether to buy a recording, all without being redundant or using clichés is not an easy task.
The challenge is even greater when it comes to solo piano. So you can rest assured that if a writer does review such a work, the recording more than warrants it. Such is the case with Manuel Valera’s Self Portrait (Mavo Records, 2014).
Valera decided to focus on four elements in creating this work. He wanted to present his jazz influence, covering songs by Bill Evans, Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk; his Cuban roots with two Latin jazz pieces; his classical influence, with the “Impromptu” selections; and his own compositions. For this date, Valera plays a restored 1918 Steinway D.
The set opens with “Spiral,” one of eight compositions by Valera. It’s ambient with an easygoing rhythm. The music begins softly, like the warmth of a new day before the sun chases the dew and the environment heats up. Then it builds as the wakeup becomes activity – perhaps preparing a light breakfast or driving to work – beating the rush hour traffic. After getting through the rigors of the day, Valera winds down, preparing for the evening.
“Impromptu No. 1” is one of three variations composed by Valera. This one is for George Gershwin. One can almost hear any of several Gershwin melodies. The song doesn’t appear to borrow any of Gershwin’s phrases, but just knowing his name is connected to this piece makes it difficult if not impossible to avoid thinking of “Fascinating Rhythm,” “Prelude,” etc., while hearing Valera.
Based in New York City, Valera was born in Havana, Cuba. A Grammy-nominated composer and pianist, he’s lent his talents to such notables as Arturo Sandoval, Paquito D’Rivera, Dafnis Prieto, Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Jeff “Tain” Watts, Chris Potter, David Binney, Joel Frahm and many others. Self Portrait gives listeners an up-close-and-personal look at the artist.