Monday, September 21, 2020

Michael Moore, Clarinets & Alto Saxophone, Big Band & Quartet

Photo: Francesca Patella
Michael Moore, a native of Eureka, California, has lived in the Netherlands for nearly four decades.  The clarinetist and saxophonist is celebrating his residency and the art he is creating by issuing three new recordings, all quite different, two of which are reviewed below.  It's also the 30th anniversary of his first release on his own Ramboy Records––that initial album, "Trio Clusone", featured the amazing percussion of Han Bennink and the equally exciting work of cellist Ernst Reijseger, two musicians Moore would spend a decade with redefining the sound of a trio.  Over the years, the label has issued 36 recordings that posit Moore in many different sound ensembles.  He's also spent a number of years performing, touring, and recording with the ICP Orchestra but has never fronted a large ensemble....until now.

In January 2019, at the invitation of percussionist Marcio Doctor (longtime member of the NDR Big Band),  Moore flew to Hamburg, Germany to spend a week rehearsing and recording with the 18-member large ensemble. The resulting album, "Sanctuary", is a smashing success.  The 10 pieces are all Moore originals pulled from his various Ramboy recordings; the clarinetist also contributed six of the arrangements with two by Henk Meugeert (Dutch composer and arranger) plus one each from Christian Elsässer (German composer and arranger) and Frank Carlberg (American-based Finnish pianist and composer).  Each piece stands outs, not just for Moore's splendid playing but also for the arrangements that frame the melodies and soloists plus excellent support from the NDR players. Drummer Tom Rainey rejoins the band (he has played with the ensemble a number of times before) for the album with trumpeter Tim Hagans picking up the conductor's baton.

The music is so fascinating. The lovely opening of "Brunheiras" opens to a sweet melody yet after the band fills the background, the clarinetist steps aside for a raucous solo from guitarist Sandra Hempel with Rainey driving the band.  "Anomalous Soul", first recorded with pianist Fred Hersch and bassist Mark Helias in 1993, is a handsome ballad with more lovely clarinet and intricate interactions within the rhythm section.  "Fogo von Slack" is a short (2:18) work for the three clarinets of Moore, Fiete Felsh, and Gabriel Coburger––there's a classical feel that also has a touch of the work of Jimmy Giuffre.  Felsh (on alto sax) also shines on "Odin" as does the impressive section writing.  Listen all to the simple yet solid rhythm section.  The bluesy "Shotgun Wedding" with its delightful trumpet melody and Moore's smoky alto sax work glides along like a smooth ride on a midnight ride.

Photo: Francesca Patella
Because the music is so good, there is the desire to write about each track. Whether it be the Americana-flavored "Trouble House" or the conversation-laden "Igor" (a tribute to Igor Stravinsky) or powerful yet sweet episodic tribute to the composer's mother (the album's title song) that closes the album, this music has melodic and harmonic power, excellent solos, intelligent arranging, and delightful solos.  "Sanctuary" serves as a refuge to the daily madness, a refreshing bath of sounds to excite your soul.

For more information, go to www.ramboyrecordings.com.

Personnel:
Michael Moore - clarinets, alto saxophone

NDR Big Band:
Felix Meyer, Ingolf Burkhardt, Claus Stötter, Sebastian Stein - trumpet, flugelhorn
Dan Gottshall, Klaus Heidenreich, Stefan Lotterman - trombone
Sebastian Hoffmann - bass trombone
Fiete Felsh - clarinet, alto sax, Peter Bolte - flute, alto sax
Gabriel Coburger, Konstantin Herleinsberger - clarinet tenor sax
Luigi Grasso - baritone sax
Florian Weber - piano

Sandra Hempel - guitars
Ingmar Heller - bass
Tom Rainey - drums

Marcio Doctor - percussion
Tim Hagans - conductor

Michael Moore - clarinets, alto saxophone


Photo: Scheba F M
Michael Moore convened his Fragile Quartet for the first time in 2007. Composed of pianist Harman Franje, bassist Clemens van der Feen, and drummer/percussionist Michael Vatcher (who also has worked with Moore in his Jewels & Binoculars Bob Dylan Tribute trio), the ensemble allows the alto saxophonist and clarinetist to create music that can and does go wherever the music wants to go, many times in unexpected and exciting directions.

For the Quartet's fifth album––Gerry Hemingway has replaced Vatcher––Moore created 13 songs that serve as a travelogue, an appreciation of natural beauty, and meditations on the Greek god Zeus, photographer Saul Leiter (1923-2013) and the painter Paul Klee (1879-1940). "Cretan Dialogues" opens with "...Dialogue #1" a three-song medley ("Lollapalooza", "Fenix Blue", and "The Meliae" (nurses of the infant Zeus)) that goes through a number of changes and melodic ideas.  The interplay is powerful, especially the work of the rhythm section as they chart new courses for the leader's reeds over the course nearly 16 minutes.  "...Dialogues #2" follows ("Europa", "Doldrums", and "Leaving Paleochora"); the first part really swings with a hint of Kenny Wheeler in the melody before van der Feen introduces the second piece with a slow spare yet effective bass solo. that leads to the clarinet melody over Fanntje's supportive chordal work.  After a splendid percussion interlude, Hemingway's cymbals and brush work give way to a lovely piano ballad. "Paleochora" is on throw southwestern coast of Crete and the music sees to look back at the town while looking forward to another ocean voyage.

Photo: YouTube
The album continues on with a Brazilian-flavored piece "Eugenia Uniflora" (named for the Brazilian Cherry bush) and the handsome ballad "Pussy Willow."  On the latter track, Moore's breathy alto and Hemingway's conversational drumming lead the way.  One of the album's shorter tracks, "A Little Box of Jazz", is also one of its "freer" pieces with all four musicians engaged in the "chat room".  The shortest track "Slowly, Slowly" closes the program–the bowed bass solo over the solemn piano chords and simple percussion serves as a coda to an album that covered a wide stylistic territory without settling in one.

"Cretan Dialogues" is quite the journey, one that moves the soul and heart of the engaged listener.  Michael Moore remains one of the more creative artists you will hear these days. He uses his Ramboy Records as an outlet for his various projects and you'd be wise to take a listen to his often-absorbing, probing, and exciting works.

The albums reviewed here will be released on October 2 in the United States.. To listen to and purchase Moore's recordings on Ramboy, go to https://michaelmooreramboy.bandcamp.com.

Monday, September 14, 2020

What Ben Goldberg has Been Doing During the Pandemic

Photo: John Rudoff
Like most musicians, clarinetist and composer Ben Goldberg had a busy Spring and Summer 2020 planned with concerts, tours, recordings, etc.  By the middle of March, all that had evaporated and he was sitting home shocked, wondering what to do until the world reopened.  After a few days of contemplation, Goldberg decided to record one song a day in his home studio. He has a number of instruments, acoustic and electric––Bb Clarinet, Eb Albert System Clarinet, Contra Alto Clarinet, Roland JX-03 Synthesizer, Korg MS-20 Synthesizer, Empress Tape Delay Pedal, Memory Boy Analog Delay––and so, on March 19, he posted his first piece in his Bandcamp page, dubbing the sessions the "Plague Diary". The recordings are free but donations are welcome; the address is below.

Goldberg posted one track each and every day until April 7. Since then, he's averaging five to seven pieces a week (from April 30 to June 28, he did not miss a day) and has yet to go more than two days between pieces. As of this writing (9/14/2020), the clarinetist has posted 148 separate recordings.  Some are experimental while others have delightful melodies and playful treatments.  Some tracks last no more than 90 seconds while others are multi-sectioned, episodic, and are over 17 minutes long.  All of it is fascinating.  While we do not know the thought processes behind the songs, many of the pieces are dedicated to musicians he has worked with (such as Ron Miles and Myra Melford) and others who have inspired him (Charlie Parker, family members).

If you are a Ben Goldberg fan or just curious, go to https://ben-goldberg--bag-production-records.bandcamp.com/album/plague-diary and check it out.  You can play any song on his site and, if you like what you hear, leave some money.

To find out more about Ben Goldberg, go to www.bengoldberg.net.

Here's his piece from July 15 dedicated to Joshua Redman:

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Stepping Out From the Rhythm Section

Bassist and composer Eric Revis (pictured left) has got serious pedigree. He's graduated from the school of Betty Carter, has also worked with Steve Coleman, Jason Moran, Lionel Hampton, Andrew Cyrille, and Orrin Evan and Nasheet Waits in the collective trio Tarbaby.  Revis has spent the past 23 years in the rhythm section of the Branford Marsalis Quartet playing alongside Jeff "Tain" Watts and his successor Jason Faulkner. A prolific composer, he has contributed songs to the Marsalis Quartet repertoire and received several prestigious grants and fellowships.

His eighth album as a leader, "Slipknots Through a Looking Glass", is his first for Kris Davis's Pyroclastic Records label. The recording features Ms. Davis on piano plus his "working" quartet of Chad Taylor (drums, mbira), Darius Jones (alto saxophone), and Bill McHenry (tenor saxophone with afore-mentioned Faulkner on drums for two tracks. The resulting music (nine Revis originals, one each from both the saxophonists, and one credited to the bassist, drummer, and pianist) runs the gamut from funk to fiery blowouts to subtle ballads, and never a dull moment. The program opens with "Baby Renfro" (listen below), a serious slab of funk underscored by Faulkner's drums, Ms. Davis's "rhythm guitar-like" piano, and and the leader's thick bass lines.  The overdubbed saxes play a robotic rhythmic line plus there are several slowdowns but most of the piece romps forward.

Photo: Jati Lindsay
Faulkner also appears on "Earl and the Three-Fifths Compromise", a slinky piece that features a circular (and hypnotic) bass line, impressionistic piano chords, and a lengthy conversation feature the two saxophones.  It's Taylor's drums that set the torrid pace "Shutter" on which both McHenry and Jones tear a hole in the ozone layer with their powerful, frantic, and raucous solos.  Ms. Davis dances all over the keyboard while Revis rips out a thunderous walking bass line. "Vimen" opens with a bass and drums dialogue before the pianist joins the fray laying down a series of angular lines blended before Jones scrambles atop the rhythm section and leaps into action. When it's his turn, McHenry takes a softer approach but slowly builds towards a powerful climax.

The title track is split in three short parts, all of which features the bassist in both speakers, quiet piano in the background, and a high-pitched but barely intelligible squeals as white noise. The "second" "Slipknots..." leads into "House of Leaves" which unfolds over four minutes of jagged, rubato, interaction before dropping into a slow funky groove and turning into a moody, introspective, work.

The most intriguing song "SpÆ", an improvised work for bass, mbira, and treated piano that flows from Revis's opening pattern and quiet piano figures and the percussive mbira into a more steady pace. Also a three-part work, the music flows from section to section seamlessly. The trance-like effect of the overdubbed mbira takes over the final moments slowing down with the bass to the fade.  McHenry's lovely ballad "When I Become Nothing" features the band moving forward together with only Ms. Davis moving around the two saxophones.  While not a conventional ballad, the music has a subtle beauty and a yearning quality.

"Slipknots Through a Looking Glass" continues the impressive body of music that Eric Revis has produced over the past two+ decades.  The sound quality of the recording is quite impressive as you can clearly hear all the voices, even when there is a lot of noise.  This is neither simple music nor "art-for-art's-sake" but true creative Black American Music.

For more information, go to https://ericrevis.com.  To purchase the album, go to https://ericrevispyroclastic.bandcamp.com/album/slipknots-through-a-looking-glass.

Here's the deliciously funky "Baby Renfro":




Who better than drummer, composer, educator, and impressive human being Matt Wilson to bring a smile to one's face in the midst of the pandemic.  From a distance––a socially responsible distance––he and his musical cohorts (reed man Jeff Lederer, cornetist Kirk Knuffke, and bassist Chris Lightcap) have conspired to give a musical "Hug!" (Palmetto Records). And, darned if we don't need a big one (hug, that is) plus a reason to smile through our collective fears and worries.

It's been six years since the MWQ released an album of its own––the members all appeared on Wilson's 2016 "Beginnings of a Memory" album as part of his Big Happy Family ensemble. The band's 2014 recording, "Gathering Call", also featured pianist John Medeski but "Hug!" is just the four musicians making their own fun.  The 11-song program opens with Gene Ammon's rollicking "The One Before This", a joyous "blues shout" that features solid bass work, crashing drums and cymbals, and stand-out solos from Lederer (tenor sax), Knuffke, Lightcap, and the leader.  Everybody gets loose so the audience can sit back and rest assured the music will be top-notch!

Off they go into a collection that features pieces by Abdullah Ibrahim ("Jabaloni"), Charlie Haden ("In The Moment"), Dewey Redman ("Joie de Vivre"), five Wilson originals, one riotous collaboration with Sun Ra ("Space Force March/Interplanetary Music"), and a Wilson favorite from his youth, Roger Miller's "King of the Road". If you are a long-time Wilson fan, his choice of material shouldn't surprise but the Miller tune stands out for its delightful....well...."joie de vivre".  Lederer's clarinet leads the way, Knuffke gets a short solo, Lightcap contributes the foundational bass line while Wilson's subtle percussion sets an ambling pace––his "tap dancing solo near the close will are you smile even wider.

Photo: John Abbott
Another surprise is the presence of the voice of President Donald Trump. He's there to announce the Space Force initiative as the band contributes a Charles Ivesian background and then break into the "Space Force March" as the President serves as counterpoint to the musical mayhem. The Quartet then segues into Sun Ra's "Interplanetary Music" (hear the original) and creates a pastiche of bouncy blues riffs with a touch of New Orleans.  They sing Sun Ra's lyrics while the President interjects his "Space Force" words.

There are plenty of other highlights.  Wilson's "Every Day With You" is a lovely ballad, heartfelt, emotional, and richly melodic. "Sunny & Share", also an original, may be a tribute to the 1960s hitmakers but, in reality, it's a raucous and rapid melody line punctuated by short solos from each member of the band.  The title tune (listen below) may just bring Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass to mind. Complete with a string accompaniment (all parts arranged and performed by Matt Combs, a Nashville, TN-based fiddler), the piece is quite sweet and deserving of its title.

Photo: John Abbott
"Hug!" closes with the aptly-titled "Hamba Kahle (Goodbye)"––the title is from the Zulu language and the music hearkens back to the sounds of Abdullah Ibrahim.  The solid drumming, the dancing electric bass line, the sweet melody line (from the drummer), and the gentle fade all serve to close the album on a hopeful note.  Having attended numerous performances by Matt Wilson either in a leadership role or as a sideman, his music and playing are often imbued with joy.  He can be silly, and irrepressibly so at times, but he is always serious about making good music. The music of the Matt Wilson Quartet obliterates borders, ignores genres, and embraces melody and improvisation. You should partake of this bounty!

For more information, go to www.mattwilsonjazz.com.

Here's the title track:


Monday, September 7, 2020

Music With Many Roots

Drummer Adam Nussbaum has had quite the career. Long associations with guitarists John Abercrombie, saxophonist Stan Getz, bassist Steve Swallow, the Brecker Brothers, Dave Liebman, and many others have proven to fans and listeners his worth in the rhythm section. He's co-led and co-leads a number of ensembles but until Sunnyside Records issued "The Lead Belly Project" in February 2018, the affable musician had never released an album as a leader.

After that album was issued, Nussbaum led his cohort––alto saxophonist Ohad Talmor, guitarists Steve Cardenas and Nate Radley––on several tours and they gelled as a working ensemble.  The quartet's second release, "Lead Belly Reimagined" (Sunnyside), includes eight more songs from the songbook of Huddie Ledbetter (1888-1949), with each member of the group contributing ideas and arrangements.  If you liked the initial disc, you'll love this.  "Princess Elizabeth", a tune written in honor of the wedding of Elizabeth to the future Prince Philip, is a lovely, lilting tune in which the guitarists play the simple but enchanting melody in unison with the alto saxophone.  "Laura" keeps the playful edge and the sprit of the original (on which the composer played button accordion and hopped and hollered)––dig how the leader even plays the melody on occasion plus the delightful, dancing, sax solo.

Photo: Neil Swanson
One of the many highlights is the evocative "Rock Island Line". Nussbaum is the train in the station warming up while one of the guitarists calls "all aboard".  Talmor plays the melody through once and the train takes off.  Pretty soon, the song is up to speed with everybody trying to keep up with the beat until we hear the melody shared by the guitar and sax and the songs comes to its conclusion. Chances are you'll also love the spunky "Shorty George"; with its bouncy New Orleans-inspired beat, Talmor and the guitarists head off in quite a playful manner.  Listen closely to "If It Wasn't For Dicky"––the tune, inspired by an Irish folk song "Drimmin' Down", became the inspiration for "Kisses Sweet Than Wine" adapted by Pete Seeger and Lee Hays of The Weavers. That last tune was a big hit for pop singer Jimmie Rogers in 1957, even winning the GRAMMY Award for "Best Pop Collaboration with Vocal" that year.  Here, the quartet caress the original melody treating it care and love.

Photo: YouTube
"Lead Belly Reimagined" closes with "Governor Pat Neff", who, legend has it, was so impressed by the songs of the prisoner Ledbetter (convicted of murder twice) that he released him before his term had expired––not so, in truth but Neff's song is a playful ditty with rollicking drums. You can hear Adam Nussbaum and the band laughing heartily after the final thump. Can't blame them as they must had such a great time on that July day in 2019 when they created this delightful album.  A playful collection of Americana, blues, "roots-jazz", and chutzpah, "Lead Belly Reimagined" will help placate your Pandemic blues!

For more information about Lead Belly, go to www.leadbelly.org.  Check out Adam Nussbaum's site at www.adamnussbaum.net. You can purchase the album by going to https://adamnussbaum.bandcamp.com/album/lead-belly-reimagined.

Here's the opening tune:



Photo: Isabel Firpo
Alto saxophonist and composer Max Bessesen grew up in Denver, CO, where he first discovered Ron Miles (cornet, trumpet)––in fact, among his first professional gigs were appearances with the brass master.  He studied at Oberlin Conservatory when he came into contact with master musicians/ educators Gary Bartz, Billy Hart, and Dr. Eddie Henderson. In 2016 he received a grant to study music that took him to India, Ghana, and Cuba.Upon his return, the saxophonist moved to Chicago where he became involved in the exciting music scene playing with bassist Matt Ulery, fellow saxophonist Greg Ward, trumpeter Emily Kuhn, and is part of the quartet Echoes. Bessesen's initial recording experience was Echoes 2018 debut EP "Square Two" followed up by the group's 2019 full album "Loading Screen."

The saxophonist also started his own group upon his return to the US, a quintet that featured Eric Krouse (piano, keys), Ethan Philion (bass), Nathan Friedman (drums), and guitarist Zac Nunnery. Sadly, the guitarist died unexpectedly in December of 2018 and the ensemble continued on as a quartet.  Bessesen's debut as a leader, "Trouble" (Ropeadope Records), is dedicated to "...Nunnery and anyone in Trouble".  Mentor Miles joins the quartet for six of the ten tracks but one can hear from the maturity of Bessesen's writing that this is a group of equals.  The program opens with "Whirling"; the leader plays a circular melody while Miles adds noises in the background, the piano chimes in, the drummer dances on his kit––the piece serves as an introduction to "Blue Glass Halo", a richly melodic piece in which the cornet and alto sax share the melody. Listen below; there's a Kenny Wheeler influence to the music yet the rhythm section seems to want to be more active, especially Friedman's powerful work

Friedman is front and center on the 52-second "Nungam" which leads into the quartet playing "Bakkam".  The titles inform the listener that the music is inspired by Bessesen's studies in India. The melody line of the latter track has that inspiration as do the dancing rhythms.  Krouse's powerful piano solo roils atop the bass and drums setting the stage for the leader's exciting interaction with the band.  One can hear the influence of Rudresh Mahanthappa in the rapid-fire lines––Bessesen's tone is "sweeter" than the sometime tart timbre of his fellow alto saxophonist.

Photo: Elliot Ross
Pieces such as "Mayhem" and the title track also gives Ron Miles (photo left) and the musicians room to be inventive.  The former track has a simple yet "mysterious" melody as well as a relentless rhythm. As the music opens, Krouse adds his Wurlitzer electric piano to the mix.  The cornet solo slowly builds from the melody line out. Note the softer yet still strong accompaniment beneath him, Bessesen enters and the rhythm becomes funkier allowing the saxophonist to dance atop the beat. "Trouble" is, not surprisingly, a more sober work. With a long alto sax intro that sounds what a flower unfolding in the morning might sound like, the song moves forward with a muted cornet. After Miles' long solo, Krouse steps out inn front with a long, flowing, solo that builds in intensity pulling the drums and bass along. For the most part, Bessesen stays in the background until close to the end of the piece when he and Miles state the full theme.

There's a lot of music, a plentitude of inspired moments, excellent musicianship and interactions throughout "Trouble".  Max Bessesen was certainly prepared for his debut yet this music does not sound overwrought or feel overwritten.  The leader contributed eight of the songs, pianist Krouse added one, and there's a lovely reading of Sammy Cahn's "Be My Love" that closes the album.  The alto saxophonist reminds this listener of another young alto player, Alex LoRe, especially in their "handsome" tone and willingness to move beyond conventional song forms while never ignoring the many musicians and sounds that preceded them.  When you add James Brandon Lewis, Logan Richardson, and several other to the list of artists who will move Black American and creative Contemporary Music forward through the next decades of the 21st Century, the music is in good minds and hands.

For more information, go to www.maxbessesen.com.  To hear more of and to purchase "Trouble", go to https://max-bessesen.bandcamp.com.

Give a listen:


Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Large Ensembles, Classical Music & Classic Cuban Poetry

Mike Fahie is a multi-faceted artist: he plays trombone, composes, arranges, plays in several large ensembles as well as having played Broadway shows, and teaches at both the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, MA. but also is on the faculty of United Nations International School. He's recorded with Darcy James Argue, Pedro Giraudo, Andrew Rathbun, and others. He's recorded two albums with all-star Quintets and now has his initial large ensemble album.

"Urban(e)" (Greenleaf Music) brings together the worlds of classical music and jazz, filters pieces by Chopin, Puccini, Stravinsky, Debussy, Bartók, Tchaikovsky, and JS Bach through Fahie's creative mind and is translated by an 18-piece Jazz Orchestra.  While many listeners may familiar with pieces such as "Nessum Dorma" (recorded by the likes of Jeff Back, Aretha Franklin, and Deep Purple with Luciano Pavarotti) and "The Firebird", it's fun to hear how those songs sound played in these settings. In fact, the Stravinsky piece mentioned just above is one of the highlights of the recording not only for its brilliant writing but for the fine solos by pianist Randy Ingram, tenor saxophonist Quinsin Nachoff, and a lovely conversation between Fahie (euphonium) and Jennifer Wharton (tuba).

Other fascinating turns include the hard rocking center of Bartók's "String Quartet No. 1, III. Allegro vivace".  Jeff Miles' slide guitar leads the ensemble into that––when the barrage of sounds conclude, the band into a Brechtian tango before rocking out once more.  A gentle entry into the sound world of Tchaikovsky's "Symphony No. 6, II. Allegro con grazia" leads to a playful waltz. Cinematic in scope, the music flows up and out of the speakers leading to delightful solos by Aaron Irwin (alto saxophone) and Nick Grinder (trombone).

The album concludes with Bach's "Seufzer, Tränen, Kummer, Not" (sighs, tears, grief, need) from "Cantata, BWV 21" that Fahie first heard on a recording by the great soprano Kathleen Battle and Wynton Marsalis.  The ensemble pays respect to the original then breaks into a long conversation between the leader (on trombone) and David Smith (trumpet).  Near the close of the piece is a terrific give-and-take between the sections led by the trumpets.

"Urban(e)" is truly an aural treat. Whether you know the original pieces or not, the creative arrangements of Mike Fahie posits you in the midst of the Jazz Orchestra.  This music is emotionally moving and, at times, a real romp.  Just let the sounds flow over you and your day will be better for it.

For more information, go to www.mikefahie.com. To listen to more and to purchase the recording, go to https://mikefahie.bandcamp.com/album/urban-e.

Music by Claude Debussy for your ears––check out the video on the Bandcamp page):



Personnel: 
Winds 
Aaron Irwin, Anton Denner, Chet Doxas, Quinsin Nachoff, Carl Maraghi 

Trumpets 
Brian Pareschi, David Smith, Sam Hoyt, Brad Mason 

Trombones 
Matthew McDonald, Nick Grinder, Daniel Linden, Jennifer Wharton 

Guitar 
Jeff Miles 

Piano 
Randy Ingram 

Bass 
Pedro Giraudo 

Drums 
Jeff Davis 

Arrangements, Orchestrations, Trombone, Euphonium 
Mike Fahie 


Photo: Mariana Maraz
Pianist, composer, and arranger Manuel Valera, a native of Havana, Cuba, has been in the United States for over two decades. Over that time, he's worked with Paquito D'Rivera, Daphnis Prieto, Arturo Sandoval, Brian Lynch, and many others.  The pianist leads several ensembles including a trio and his sextet the New Cuban Express plus a quintet Groove Square. Valera has issued albums on CrissCross Jazz, MaxxJazz/ Mack Avenue, and his own label Mavo Records. For his latest project, the artist has expanded his sextet to 19 members plus vocalists Camilla Meza (three tracks) and Sofia Rei (four tracks) , thereby creating the New Cuban Express Big Band.

"José Marti en Neuvo York" (Greenleaf Music) contains seven Valera originals based on nine poems from "Versos Sencillos" (simple verses), the collection that the great Cuban writer (1853-95) wrote during his time in the New York City area (he spent nearly 15 years in the US) and published after his death.  The combination of bubbling percussion, melodies built on traditional Cuban pieces, the colorful section arrangements, and the splendid vocals, this music comforts, excites, holds your interest from beginning to end, and features excellent musicianship.  Valera, who can burn on the keys like few others, reins in his formidable chops to allow the ensemble the space to develop strong solos.

The album opens quietly with "Odio La Mascara Y El Vicio" (I Hate the Mask and Vice)––after Ms. Meza completes the verses, the tempo picks up, pushed by the powerful rhythms by drummer Jimmy Macbride and veteran percussionist Samuel Torres.  When the vocalist returns, now over the faster tempos, the music takes a powerful turn.  Ms. Rei steps out on the next track, "Es Rubia, El Cabello Suelto" (She is Blonde: loose hair); her voice seems to rise out of the ensemble especially as she sings a wordless vocal along with the brass and reeds.  A melodic electric bass solo by Pedro Giraudo opens "El Enemigo Brutal" (The Brutal Enemy) supported only by the hand percussion of Mauricio Herrera and the synthesized strings of the leader before Ms. Rei steps into the tale of an ugly war, her husky voice a fascinating contrast to the sharp brass and bright reeds. The gentle flow of the medley "Yo Quiero Salir Del Mundo / Yo Pienso Cuando Me Alegro" (I Want to Leave the World/ I Think, When I'm Glad) grows slowly but surely in intensity as more instruments are added. Ms. Meza enters after a short alto saxophone statement and glides through the vocal. Valera employs the same melody as the first section for the second poem in the melody. Here, the vocal is doubled by guitarist Alex Goodman giving the piece a shimmering feel. 

The album closes with the rhythmically exciting "Si Quiere Que De Este Mundo" (If You Want From this World) that features Ms. Rei taking the lead and also joining the ensemble with her wordless vocals.  Valera takes a fine, playful, solo over the rest of the rhythm section followed by an exciting trumpet solo (no credit) and the a rousing spot for baritone saxophonist Andrew Gutauskas.  Macbride and Torres's percussion interchange leads the ensemble back in for an intense finish.

"Jose Marti en Neuvo York" is an intelligent and exciting musical experience fueled by the experiences of the Cuban poet early in the final decade of the 19th Century.  Marti, a vocal advocate and fund-raiser for the independence of his homeland, created these works in exile and the writings speak to the human condition.  Manuel Valera spent many months working on these pieces during the time his wife was battling (and subsequently succumbing to) cancer. The music celebrates his ties to his native country where he first studied piano, composition, and arranging.  Truly a delightful listening experience, this debut recording by the New Cuban Express Big Band is a treat.

For more information, go to www.manuelvalera.com. To listen to more music and purchase the recording, go to https://manuelvaleranewcubanexpressbigband.bandcamp.com.

Here's the opening track (with vocals by Camila Meza):



Personnel: 
VOICE 
Camila Meza (on three tracks 
Sofia Rei (on four tracks) 

TRUMPETS 
John Walsh (Lead on two tracks
Brian Pareschi (Lead on five tracks
Michael Rodriguez 
David Smith 
Alex Norris 

REEDS 
Michael Thomas (Lead Alto and Soprano Saxophones, C and Piccolo Flutes) 
Roman Filiu (Alto and Soprano Saxophones, Flute and Alto Flute) 
Joel Frahm (Tenor and Soprano Saxophones) 
Charles Pillow (Tenor and Soprano Saxophones, Clarinet) 
Andrew Gutauskas (Baritone Saxophone and Bass Clarinet) 

TROMBONES 
Matt McDonald (Lead) 
John Yao 
Andy Clausen 
Jeff Nelson (Bass) 

RHYTHM SECTION 
Manuel Valera (Piano, Celeste and Keyboards) 
Alex Goodman (Guitar) 
Ricky Rodriguez (Bass) 
Jimmy Macbride (Drums) 
Samuel Torres (Percussion on five tracks
Mauricio Herrera (Percussion on two tracks)