By Ron Netsky
There is a particularly transcendent moment at the beginning of “Upward,” the third track on Manuel Valera’s excellent new album. An urgent Latin beat is established when suddenly a swirl of notes come spiraling up out of nowhere with a wondrous sound, as if to say: Fasten your seat belts, this album is now taking off.
Valera, who is equally adept at acoustic piano and a variety of electronic keyboards, wrote and arranged most of the album’s tracks. He is a native of Cuba and one of the top contemporary artists carrying on the Afro-Cuban tradition in jazz. But on this album Valera goes for something different. Afro-Cuban jazz is still present, but he also incorporates elements of R&B, funk, and fusion, and the result is exhilarating.
For instance, his composition “Regards” covers all of the territory mentioned above in an engaging hybrid style with bassist John Benitez slapping out his notes and Eric Doob (drums) and Mauricio Herrera (percussion) getting a funk workout. Other supporting players who excel throughout the album are Yosvany Terry on various saxophones and Tom Guarna on guitar. But it is Valera’s unique musical vision and his innovative solos that carry the day.