By Manuel Valera
By Kabir Sehgal
Reflective and ruminative, melancholy and meditative – this album is one for the ages. Distancia is Manuel Valera’s latest epic, in which he draws upon searing personal experiences – going through personal loss, and having to pick up the pieces to move forward.
When you listen, you’ll no doubt hear the contours of the past, moving forward, and coming out of difficult life passages. Inevitably this album is a creation of empathy: something that we want to share with people who understand us and appreciate life’s difficult journeys, but also with those who need it, for whatever reason.
The opening number “Expectativas” is a modal Latin tune with a Brazilian-sounding bridge. This fusion of sounds is what we’ve come to expect from Valera and his remarkable band. Featured soloists Alex Norris (trumpet), Remy LeBoeuf (alto sax), Samuel Torres (percussion) enrich the piece with their virtuosity and dynamism. “Gemini” begins with a pulsing piano riff, which evolves elegantly with a flowering harmony – without changing intervallic relationships. “This is one of my favorite tunes on the album,” said Valera. And for good reason. Inspired by the zodiac sign, this piece is an up tempo affair which signifies that despite tragedy, triumph can prevail.
The kaleidoscopic colors and hues of “From Afar” twist, turn, and unfold into beautiful and building passages. Inspired by French impressionist painter Claude Monet, this piece is one that pulls on your heart strings. The haunting yet inviting choral opening blends with Camila Meza’s vocals and eventually Michael Thomas’ searing solo (soprano sax). “Pathways” starts with a piano groove, soon accompanied by a melodic line on the bass and tenor saxophone. This melodic line gets reharmonized as well as played by various instruments across different sections of the song. This composition is a window into Valera’s genius mind, as we hear how he deftly weaves all the sonic parts into a veritable, beautifully sounding whole.
“From the Ashes” is similar to “Pathways” in that the seemingly simple theme gathers steam, and evolves both harmonically and rhythmically. Valera delivers an exceptional solo, and as the piece moves into a 5/4 feel, Michael Thomas (soprano saxophone) renders an extraordinary solo of his own. Framed by the precise band hits, Matt Macdonald (trombone) glides through his ranging solo with aplomb. “Impressionistic Romance” started as the first movement of a piano concerto that hasn’t come together as of yet but hopefully will. It features the piano heavily (with Valera’s solo) and ample woodwinds and mutes on the brass to create subtle orchestral colors. You can hear the influences of Ravel and Debussy in Valera’s work.
The title track “Distancia” is a piece of perspective. Valera composed it while thinking about life as an itinerant musician. The traveling artist may be at home with his or her art, but there’s something to be said for sleeping with the same pillow and on the same bed every night. Inspired by the music of Kenny Wheeler, Valera’s piece features Charles Pillow (soprano sax) and Mike Fahie (trombone). The final selection “Remembered” is not just about looking back, but moving ahead with a propulsive funky Latin groove. With solos by Alex Goodman (guitar), Andy Clausen (trombone), David Smith (trumpet) – this piece will undoubtedly feel like there are brighter days ahead.
It’s been a pleasure to help produce this album with Valera. He is a joy with whom to work, and his latest album is a masterpiece. Bravo.