By Mark Holston
If the name “Valera” is frequently mentioned in Latin jazz circles this spring, it’s largely because of the near-simultaneous recent release of two albums, one by Manuel Valera Sr., a 65-year-old veteran saxophonist who has performed with a host of Latin music greats, and the other by his 34-year-old son, pianist Manuel Valera Jr. For the Miami-based Valera Sr., Recuerdos (Memories), on Mavo Records, stands as his debut recording as a leader. His son’s album, In Motion, on the Criss Cross Jazz imprint, features his group New Cuban Express and is the ninth album he’s recorded as a leader since 2004. Valera Jr. also arranged his father’s date and, along with three members of New Cuban Express, provided accompaniment. Both sessions reflect a jazz-oriented perspective.
“I started listening to jazz at an early age in Havana,” Valera Sr. recalls in softly spoken Spanish. “It was mostly the West Coast cool-school guys like Lee Konitz, Stan Getz and Paul Desmond. My influences don’t include any Cuban saxophonists. Since I was a kid, all of my inspiration has come from U.S. jazz artists.”
“Papi is a little different from most Cuban musicians of his generation in that his first love has always been jazz,” his son, long a resident of New York City, confirms. “In addition to the older artists, he’s always been interested in more modern-thinking musicians like Chick Corea and Michael Brecker. And he’s always asking me who is the new cat and what’s happening in New York. He really likes players like Chris Potter and Seamus Blake. He’s always hungry for new information and new people to listen to.”
The idea for Recuerdos goes back almost three decades to when Valera Sr. was still in Cuba. Although he had gained fame as a member of such celebrated groups as vocalist Beny Moré’s band and the Orquesta Cubana de Música Moderna (the forerunner of famed fusion group Irakere), opportunities to record as a leader were nonexistent. “The chance never came along,” Valera, Sr. says. “Manuel would say, ‘Papi, it’s a good idea. Muy sabroso [very flavorful].’ The idea was then, and always has been, to play traditional music but in a contemporary way.”