By Kerilie McDowall | Published June 2018
Russian composer Nicolas Slonimsky’s 1947 masterpiece Thesaurus Of Scales And Melodic Patterns, with its sesquiquinquetone progression frolicking happily among interpolations, might seem somewhat intimidating to the non-musician. But Havana-born Manuel Valera’s latest trio album, The Planets, is the pianist’s galactic take on the heady explorations contained within the pages of the book, which was studied by John Coltrane, among others.
Contributions from bassist Hans Glawischnig, drummer E.J. Strickland and Valera’s brainy explorations bloom from motivic melodic seeds. After working together as a trio for four years, impressionistic cosmic interpretations emerge, sourced from ancient Greek and Roman planetary mythology, as Valera (a Grammy-nominated New York resident) features Debussy and Ravel-inspired interludes.
“Sun Prelude l” launches the suite with stormy, pensive piano, segueing into a bass ostinato groove and modal flavors with Valera’s “Mercury The Messenger.” Stream-of-consciousness “Venus–Peace” shows Valera is on top of Slonimsky’s scalar and chromatic shapes, borrowing from the kaleidoscopic classical music tradition with a Latin-jazz sensibility.
Modal trading with piano call-and-response finalizes “Neptune–Prophet Of The Seas.” Valera’s dazzling piano lines lead to playful solo drums and torrential melodies, capping his ambitious planetary suite and offering both turbulent closure and satisfying resolution.
The Planets: Sun Prelude l; Mercury–The Messenger; Sun Prelude II; Venus–Peace; Intro To Earth; Earth–The History Of Us; Mars–Ancient Warrior; Sun Prelude III; Jupiter–Joyous Thunder; Saturn–The Wise One; Uranus–Morphing Skies; Neptune–Prophet Of The Seas. (55:58)
Personnel: Manuel Valera, piano; Hans Glawischnig, bass; E.J. Strickland, drums.