Manuel Valera

Manuel Valera is a Cuban pianist, bandleader, composer, and arranger, with goals to forge innovative sounds that bring a vitality and newness to the idioms of jazz and Latin jazz — constantly workshopping musical ideas to develop new composition and arranging techniques that bring together Cuban, Puerto Rican, Brazilian, and various jazz styles and forms.

Growing up in Havana, Cuban music is an undeniable part of his heritage and colors his writing. He draws from his background, including Cuban popular music as well as folkloric music. Valera is influenced by Impressionistic harmonies of the likes of Ravel and Debussy, as well as the jazz works of masters like Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. His primary focus is to try to create complex music that is simple to the ears and has a lot of substance for those that dig deeper.

His musical training started at an early age at Havana’s Manuel Saumell Conservatory, initially studying classical saxophone. It wasn’t until emigrating to the United States in December 1994 when he switched to the piano. He began composing in 2000 while enrolled in the jazz program at the New York’s The New School and studied, among others, with Reggie Workman, George Garzone, Jane Ira Bloom, Gerard D’Angelo, and Richie Bierach.

His recording career as a leader began in late October 2003, two days after his 23rd birthday, recording the debut critically acclaimed CD, Forma Nueva — a modern jazz cd of contemporary originals featuring bassist John Patitucci, drummers Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez, Bill Stewart and Seamus Blake on saxophones.

In 2020, Manuel released a new album with his New Cuban Express Big Band on Greenleaf Music entitled José Martí En Nueva York with a strong message. Born out of the crisis of Valera’s loss of his wife to cancer last year, Jose Marti en Nueva York is a personal cry for freedom, justice, and an expression of passion.

In 2021 the Live at Diese Onze trio recording was released on the AZis label marking Valera’s fifteenth record as a leader. This release features Clarence Penn on drums and Hans Glawischnig on bass.

“He leaves no doubt that he’s destined to play a role in the future of jazz. Valera shows a keen jazz vocabulary, a gift for creating grooves that invite stellar solo flights from his collaborators and the nerve to romance a melody when it suits him,” said Philip van Vleck of Billboard Magazine. In the years since critically acclaimed Forma Nueva, he has recorded another 12 albums as a leader, creating work for solo, duo, trio, quartet, and sextet, including adaptations for woodwinds and strings, each defining his pianistic voice, compositional repertoire and arranging techniques. He has become well known in the New York City modern jazz scene, garnering national reviews and lending his talents as a pianist, composer, and arranger to such notable artists as Arturo Sandoval, Paquito D’Rivera, Brian Lynch, Dafnis Prieto, Jeff “Tain” Watts, John Benitez, Yosvany Terry and classical violinist Joshua Bell.

Some accomplishments include the 2019 Guggenheim Fellowship, a Grammy nomination for his sixth recording ‘New Cuban Express’ — dubbed “Jazz Cubano for Modern Times” — released in June, 2012 in the Best Latin Jazz Album category. Press awards include Jazziz Critics’ Choice for “The Best of 2007” and the “2007 Jazz Twirlies,” a celebration award given to those most worthy in modern jazz. Valera has been awarded composition grants from Chamber Music America New Jazz Works in 2006, 2013, and 2017; the Dranoff/Bacardi Two Piano Composition Award in 2015 and 2018; the 2005 ASCAP Young Jazz Composer Award; and Jazz Journalist Association’s awards finalist nominee of the Up & Coming Musician of the Year category. Valera has traveled the world, performing in more than 30 countries at some of the biggest international venues and festivals.

Manuel’s second album by his New Cuban Express Big Band, Distancia, will be released on March 18, 2022.

Press Quotes
Praise for José Martí En Nueva York:

“Truly a delightful listening experience, this debut recording by the New Cuban Express Big Band is a treat.” – Step Tempest

“Masterpiece is not too strong a description for this mesmerizing, deeply-felt music.” – John Cacona

“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.” – Downbeat

“Although adhering to expressive forms now classic, Valera’s orchestral work is sophisticated in the way it combines styles, showing personal dynamic and timbral solutions.” – All About Jazz (Translated from Italian)

“On this recording, the work has been elegantly polished, celebrating the marriage of American jazz and Cuban rhythm with as much rigor and passion as it fêtes Martí. While there are obvious passages where you recognize the taut pirouette of danzon and the honeydrip of bolero, the orchestrations are more frequently reminiscent of the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Big Band’s taut swing and the tone poetry of Kenny Wheeler.” – JazzTimes

“The performances are so genuine and naturally sung with the New Cuban Express Big Band’s exquisite backing making for truly sublime listening.” – In a Blue Mood

“The mix of salsa and modern jazz with passionate lyrics makes for a tasty treat.” – Jazz Weekly

Praise for previous albums:

“Manuel Valera stands in a long line of virtuoso Cuban-born musicians based in New York. As a pianist, he’s established himself as a versatile first-call musician; as a bandleader, he’s often found new connections between pan-Latin rhythms and modern jazz styles.” – NPR

“He leaves no doubt that he is destined to play a role in the future of jazz.” – Philip Van Vleck, Billboard

“The sound is both old and spectacularly new in terms of his re-invention of the music of a tradition to which he is inextricably linked. And this increases Valera’s importance as a musician in the arena of Afro-Cuban music.” – Raul da Gama, Latin Jazz Network, June 2012

“New Cuban Express is one of the best new Latin Jazz releases we’ve heard this year (or in a while, frankly), and sets a bar that will be hard for others to jump over.” – Bill Tilford,, June 2012

“With New Cuban Express, Valera stakes his claim for the establishment of a new sound in fusing rhythms of Latin with elements of modern/fusion.” – Edward Bianco, EJazz News, June 2012

Press Inquiries

Chris DiGirolamo
Two for the Show Media


Facebook: @manuelvalera
Instagram: @manuelvalerajazzpiano