Manuel Valera New Cuban Express Big Band

José Martí En Nuevo York
(Greenleaf Music)

Manuel Valera celebrates a key figure in the liberation of Cuba from Spain on José Martí En Nuevo York. The pianist’s compositions clearly express his adoration for the 19th-century activist with vivid arrangements that spotlight vocalists Camilla Meza and Sofia Rei, who turn Martí’s poetry into song. Performances by the New Cuban Express Big Band—and, crucially, Valera—span the danceable and the pensive, their spirit making José Martí a joy to hear. But the album’s also about catharsis: Valera wrote much of the material last year, when his wife was battling cancer. She died in October, and the bandleader has dedicated the album to her.

“Odio La Mascara Y El Vicio” begins with ominous percussion and foghorn winds, setting up propulsive alto saxophone, urgent trombone and Meza’s sultry vocal. A proud, almost arrogant track, it sets a high bar for the ensuing album. Only “Tiene El Leopardo Un Abrigo/Cultivo Una Rosa Blanca” falls slightly short, and even that tune ends strongly. “El Enemigo Brutal,” the album’s richest offering, launches with brooding guitar; sparked by bass clarinet and other yawing reeds, the mischievous salsa could be the soundtrack to a haunted-house tour. “Por Sus Ojos Encendidos,” a velvety bolero with a cha-cha slouch, finds Valera’s rubato piano intertwining with cymbal splashes, the tune winding down with a soprano solo that starts brightly and ends urgently, echoing Martí’s push toward freedom.