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CD Review: Manuel Valera & New Cuban Express “Expectativas”

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The title of Manuel Valera & New Cuban Express’s album, “Expectativas,” is not too difficult to translate. The word means expectations, and mine were high for the new album by Valera and his group. If you caught his act at the Rochester International Jazz Festival (he’s played the festival a couple of times) you know just how dazzling a keyboard wizard he is. Add his Cuban roots and his immersion in his culture’s music to the mix and you’ve got a fantastic player.

Valera has met his match in every member of The New Cuban Express. The endlessly pulsating group consists of Yosvany Terry on saxophones and chekere; Tom Guarna, guitar; John Benitez, bass; Ludwig Afonso, drums; Paulo Stagnaro, percussion, and Mauricio Herrera, batas and percussion. There is one very special guest: Valera’s father, also named Manuel Valera, on alto saxophone on one track. “La Gloria Eres Tu” is a wonderful bolero (and the only tune on the album not composed by Valera) and the elder Valera plays it beautifully.

Valera’s compositions are nicely varied, but they still have one thing in common. Every one of them is harmonically rich, providing ample opportunities for all of the musicians to strut their stuff. Particularly noteworthy is guitarist Guarna, who plays a spectacular solo on “Jben Timbus (For John Benitez)” only to be followed by an excellent bass excursion by Benitez himself.

Of course it’s Valera’s showcase and he is superb in his writing and at every turn excels instrumentally, no matter what he is playing. Valera is capable of executing gorgeous chordal progressions (“El Cinco”), or blistering keyboard solos as he does on just about every track on the album. A lot of jazz players flirt with Cuban rhythms and musical genres; Valera and his band are the real thing. “Expectativas” surpassed my expectations.

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