Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Manual Valera and The New Cuban Express – “Expectativas”

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Other than in Cuba, a new generation of Timba bands now flourishes in Miami, Florida, where a large concentration of Cuban-Americans reside. Miami has become the new Timba center outside the island largely by the contributions of former members of the aforementioned bands who decided to stay in the US in search of new opportunities.”
- Vicenzo Perna. Timba: The Sound of the Cuban Crisis

“This new recording, Expectativas, takes the songwriting even deeper with extensive time shifting, liberal use of odd meters, genuine Timbajazz and other innovations, and the musicians rise to the challenge with some of the most inspired performances that you will hear in this music.”
- Bill Tilford, www.timba.com

“Manuel Valera leaves no doubt that he is destined to play a role in the future of Jazz.”
- Philip Van Vleck, Billboard

For a time during my professional career, I worked at international firm that had regional offices throughout the USA.

I was based on what my New York friends called The Left Coast [i.e.: San Francisco] with a reporting line to a branch manager in Seattle.

While with this firm, I developed a specialty that was much in demand with healthcare systems in California, a state that is forced to be innovative and progressive because nearly one-in-twelve Americans live in the state and the force of those numbers are a constant source of pressure on the cost of all goods and services.

Around this time, all I knew about Miami, Florida was that it was on the other side of the country and had an airport that I had once passed through while on my way to a vacation in Spain.

That was about to change when one day the branch manager phoned and informed me that I was going to get a call from two of my counterparts based in Miami.

“Why me?,” I said. He replied: “Because they are working to land a large account that can use your area of expertise. You can either make a visit to set these guys up and support them afterwards by phone, or, you can plan to spend a lot of time in Miami doing it for them.”

I gathered in talking further with him that the office in Miami had become a cosmopolitan one which reflected the fact that the city was fast becoming a Latin American melting pot. Two of the recent hires in our Miami office were Cuban-Americans who came from expatriate Cuban families and these were to become my “students” [his words, not mine].

“Teach them the basics. They are young and full of juice; they’ll catch on quickly.”

Through an exchange of information with other sources, I was able to ascertain that the account they were working on was a large hospital that had layered incompatible approaches to risk management together and I knew of some ways that might fix the hospital’s problems.

So I flew to Miami. Due to the time difference and a delay caused by the-always-terrible-weather at the San Francisco International Airport, it was a late-arriving flight. My Cuban-American colleagues picked me up at the airport, took me downtown and checked me into a hotel that was near our offices. “Get some kip because we are going to start at 8:00 AM.”

8:00 AM! That would mean that I would have to get up at the equivalent of four o’clock in the morning, Pacific Time [which my bodily clock was still running on].

When the alarm went off at 4:00 AM, I got up, murmured something to myself like “How did I get into this mess,” and then promptly walked into a wall before backing up and then locating the door to the bathroom.

My colleagues were at the curb outside the hotel waiting for me and as I was gurgling coffee while trying not to fall asleep in the back seat they said: “We are going to work from 8:30 to 1:30 and then we are going to play for the rest of the day.”

And play we did.

After the meetings, they took me to The Versailles a restaurant in the Little Havana section of Miami that specialized in Cuban food and which served it in portions that were gigantic.

Then we went to a coffee and cigar bar where we drank strong Cuban coffee and the guys puffed on smoothly-pulling stogies while playing dominoes outside on a veranda with two old-timers who royally kicked our backsides and dominated every game.

The it was back to the hotel to take a nap. A nap? How after drinking caffeine laced Cuban coffee and ingesting all that nicotine for most of the afternoon - not to mention the still-full stomach from the huge lunch at Versailles that would probably take me another day-and-a-half to digest – was I going to take a nap?

“Don’t worry,” my colleagues reassured me, “it will wear off quickly and you’ll be asleep in no time. Tonight we are going to take you to a club in Little Havana that features “Timba Music.”

I didn’t know anything about “Timba Music,” but from the moment I first heard it in the musty, murky atmosphere of that club in Little Havana, the ex-drummer in me fell in love with it.

I found this brief explanation of Timba music in Wikipedia:

“As opposed to salsa, whose roots are with the Cuban conjunto bands of the 1940s and 1950s, modified with rock, jazz, funk, pop and Puerto Rican folk, Timba represents a synthesis of a wider variety of popular and folkloric sources. Timba bands draw heavily from international influences such as Jazz, Rock, Disco, Funk and, more recently, Hip Hop, as well as, Cuba’s more indigenous music such as rumba, guaguancó, batá drumming and the sacred songs of santería.”

We did manage to get the account by helping the client integrate the cost control features they were using rather than stacking them one-on-top-of-the-other and, true to his word, the boss allow me to work on the account with my Miami-based colleagues by phone, fax and e-mail.

Being so far from Miami, I must admit to not having kept up much with Timba music.

That is until I listened to the opening track of Manuel Valera’s latest CD, Expectativas: Manuel Valera and The New Cuban Express [Mavo Records 1105], entitled Chamber Timba which quickly served to bring back all the happy memories of my time in Little Havana.

But it did more than that because Chamber Timba and the eleven other tracks on Expectativas introduced me to Manuel Valera’s highly sophisticated skills as a composer and his phenomenal technique as a keyboardist.

Expectativas: Manuel Valera and The New Cuban Express is not just another Latin Jazz recording with Jazz superimposed over Latin rhythms.

Manuel’s music successfully integrates Latin rhythms and melodic conventions with elements of the cool style of Jazz reminiscent of the arrangements of Gerry Mulligan, Gil Evans, Bill Holman with their interplay of countermelodies and light, bouncy rhythms, the harmonic orientation of pianist Lenny Tristano and his counterparts, alto saxophonist Lee Konitz and tenor saxophonist Warne Marsh and the unusual time signatures that first came to prominence with the Dave Brubeck Quartet and later reached incredible complexity with the Don Ellis Orchestra.

In addition to Manuel’s marvelous technique on keyboards, NCX is made-up of the light-toned and super smooth soprano and alto saxophone work of Yosvany Terry [who also plays the Chekere on all but one track], the guitar stylings of Tom Guarna, the “heartbeat” provided bassist John Benitiz and the “pulse” and drive of drummer Ludwig Alfonso. The “hot sauce and spices” that flavor the music come from percussionists Paulo Stagnaro and Mauricio Herrera.

Manuel’s tunes and arrangements require a great deal of skill to play; you have to know what you’re doing at all times in this music as there are so many moving parts.

The musicianship on display by Manuel and The New Cuban Express is more than equal to the task.

And it needs to be for as Vicenzo Perna, author of Timba: The Sound of the Cuban Crisis further explains: “Timba songs tend to sound more innovative, experimental and frequently more virtuosic than salsa pieces; horn parts are usually fast, at times even bebop influenced, and stretch to the extreme ranges of all instruments. Bass and percussion patterns are similarly unconventional.”

Timba needs to be spoken of because of its musical, cultural, social, and political reasons; its sheer popularity in Cuba, its novelty and originality as a musical style, the skill of its practitioners, its relationship with both local traditions and the culture of the black Diaspora, its meanings, and the way its style brings to light the tension points within society. In addition to timbales, Timba drummers make use of the North American drum-set, further distinguishing the sound from that of mainland salsa. The use of synthesized keyboards is also common.”

Bill Tilford of Timba.com, gave these impressions Expectativas which appear in the CD’s insert notes:

“Manuel Valera had already been recording excellent Jazz albums for nearly a decade (the disc you are holding in your hands or tasting electronically is his 7th as a leader) when his current group, the New Cuban Express, came together in 2011, and Cuba has given birth to so many excellent composer-pianist-bandleaders that if this story didn't have anything more to it, the music you are about to hear might still be concealed within a thick jungle of other distinguished but obscure recordings by exceptionally-talented Cuban Jazz artists now living in cities like New York as well as back on the island.

Fortunately for all of us, something extraordinary happened when this band began performing in public — like some Latin Jazz version of the CERN supercollider or a cutting-edge biotech lab, the New Cuban Express began producing results that will one day fundamentally transform our understanding of how the musical universe is put together.

The NCX's first recording, 2012's self-titled New Cuban Express, spread like wildfire among the community of musicians and serious listeners and earned a GRAMMY nomination for Best Latin Jazz Album of the Year. This new recording, Expectativas, takes the songwriting even deeper with extensive time shifting, liberal use of odd meters, genuine Timbajazz and other innovations, and the musicians rise to the challenge with some of the most inspired performances that you will hear in this music.

If you are reading these lines ten years from the time that this was recorded, I won't be at all surprised if Expectativas is considered part of the birth of something not yet named. If you have the good fortune to be present at the creation, drop whatever else you are doing, prepare to experience something memorable, and decide for yourself whether this is merely some of the best Latin Jazz you have ever heard or something more than that.”

Also from the disc insert notes, what Manuel Valera has to say about his own music should give you a sense of its richness and diversity:

“The music on this recording represents my continued growth as a composer, pianist and bandleader. I feel very for­tunate to have the opportunity to work regularly with the NCX and I feel a deep connection with all the members of the band. Here's a brief synopsis of each track.

Chamber Timba is a composition that infuses the high energy of timba mu­sic with the subtleties of Jazz. This is a concept that we have been working on as a band.

Expectativas is a tune that has been part of the band's repertoire and I've always felt a sense of hope and innocence from this composition.

Perception is a gentle cha cha cha that goes thru some rhythmic changes. In the middle it goes to a danzon and at the ends it becomes a makuta with a timba flavor.

Chennai Express is a tune dedicated to all my friends at SAM. (Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music) in southern India where I had the plea­sure of teaching at the beginning of 2013 for 7 weeks. This tune is in 11/4.

I composed Isabelita when my daughter Isabel was born in 2008. She inspires everything I do.

Jben Timbus is a feature for one of my favorite bass players anywhere: John Benitez. I'm so lucky he also happens to be part of the NCX!

La Gloria Eres Tu is an amazing bolero by the great Cuban singer-songwriter Jose Antonio Mendez. This track is really exciting for me because my father, Manuel Valera (the saxophonist), is performing with us on this one. He has one of the most beautiful alto sounds out there and I'm really excited that we finally got a chance to record something together with the NCX.

En Cinco is a really old tune of mine. I actually recorded a different arrangement of this song on my debut CD Forma Nueva with El Negro Hernandez and John Patitucci. It has stayed in my repertoire thru the years and I've performed it in all sorts of formats—from solo piano to big band. On this track the band really opens up!

Open Window is a song that gives you a sense of all the possibilities and different paths that one could take at any point life.

Descarga Para Frank Emilio’" is a tune based on the rhythmic motif from Sandunga Mandinga Mondongo by the great Cuban pianist Frank Emilio Flynn.

Las Americas is a ballad that I dedicate to the entire American continent and to all our friends from the Western hemisphere.

Thank you for listening!”

The following video montage of scenes from Miami’s “Little Havana” is set to Chamber Timba to give you a sample of the exciting music on Expectativas: Manuel Valera and The New Cuban Express. [Please click on the “X” to close out of the ads.]

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