Manuel Valera New Cuban Express Big Band - José Martí En Nueva York

The debut of Manuel Valera’s
New Cuban Express Big Band
with music inspired by Cuban icon José Martí

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Released August 28, 2020.

Grammy-nominated pianist and composer Manuel Valera (Paquito D’Rivera, Arturo Sandoval, Steve Smith) presents the dynamic debut of his New Cuban Express Big Band. Inspired by José Martí, the famed Cuban writer and independence hero, José Martí en Nueva York features Valera’s song cycle of original music based on nine poems from Martí’s seminal 1891 collection, “Versos Sencillos.”

Addressing a range of political and societal issues that are relevant even today, the texts are set for two unique vocalists, Sofia Rei and Camila Meza. Valera uses the broad palette of the big band to express a wide breadth of moods and emotions, touching on traditional Cuban music styles (Danzón, bolero) as well as modern Latin jazz to give Martí’s poetry new life.

The album’s large ensemble features some of New York’s best creative musicians, including standout soloists Michael RodriguezRoman FiliuJoel Frahm, and Mauricio Herrera. Produced by Kabir Sehgal and Doug Davis, the album is modern big band jazz with a 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.

“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

Album Liner Notes:

José Martí En Nueva York is a masterpiece. And I don’t use that word lightly. Manuel Valera is a musical genius who has crafted music that is both enlightening and entertaining, sophisticated and subtle. That Valera has been inspired by Cuba’s patron saint, José Martí, has given this work an epic trajectory. How can you pay homage to the patriot who symbolizes Cuban independence? With a musical work that soars in its ambition and pulses with the rhythm of freedom and liberty.

No doubt, Valera prepared for the large task at hand. He conceived and visualized this piece as an honorific of Martí but also as a reflection on the ties between the United States and Cuba. Valera began writing the music for the album as part of the Guggenheim Fellowship. And then the music took on tragic meaning. When Valera lost his wife Lisa to cancer, he threw himself into the process of crafting the music. Writing and playing music has a meditative and cathartic effect on the maestro. “Music kept me together through those very hard months,” said Valera.

Writing for a big band is no easy feat. It’s a challenge that Valera was up for, as he has long studied, enjoyed, and practiced the form. He admires (and channels) Thad Jones, Bob Brookmeyer, Kenny Wheeler, Carlos Franzetti, and more. Manuel Valera and the New Cuban Express is a cast of veritable all-stars with remarkable vocalists such as Camila Meza (Parts 1, 3, 4) and Sofia Rei (Parts 2, 5, 6, 7). The incubator for this music was certainly Terraza 7 in Queens, New York, and it benefitted from the support of its owner Freddy Castiblanco.

What gives this project ballast is Martí’s poems. Valera based this song cycle on a book that Martí wrote during his fifteen year stay in New York as a journalist, as he helped to fund the ongoing struggle for independence in Cuba. The poems address a range of political and societal issues. For example, Verse III Odio La Mascara Y El Vicio is a mediation in which Martí longs to return to his home country. Verse XXVI El Enemigo Brutal inveighs against the cruelness of the colonial Spaniards towards native Cubans. Verse XXXIX Cultivo Una Rosa Blanca, which is arguably the most well-known, is a reflection on amity, accord, and friendship. Setting these seminal words to music was no easy feat, and Valera has delivered a gift to his native Cuba and to all who enjoy freedom and ardently defend it.

José Martí En Nueva York will go down as a release for the ages, one that reharmonized the poetry of patriotism into the music of a maestro. It has been a privilege for Doug Davis and I to produce this work with and for maestro Valera. We’re also grateful to Dave Douglas and Greenleaf Music for putting this project out into the world.
Kabir Sehgal, June 2020

Notes from Manuel Valera:

I’ve been a huge fan of big band music since my college days and after moving to New York I got to perform quite a bit with big bands and fell in love with the format!

Earlier last year while talking with Terraza 7 in queens’ owner Freddy Castiblanco about my Guggenheim Fellowship receipt last year, the Idea of having my own working big band came up and he offered to do a monthly residency at his club.  With that in place I started the task of writing all the music.  At first it was 8 arrangements and then my big band writing addiction and obsession was sparked.  I arranged and composed over 30 compositions for the big band last year.  As part of that work was the expansion of my 2015 Chamber Music Jazz Works commission Jose Marti en Nueva York for big band.  This piece was conceived for the smaller version of this band – The Sextet New Cuban Express – but I’ve always felt that this piece needed to be bigger and larger sounding. The original singer for the project was Sofia Rei (which I love) and last august Camila Meza sang with the Big Band at the Jazz Gallery and I also love her interpretation.

During all this while my wife Lisa Valera was battling a rare form of cancer – this music saved my sanity.  The therapeutic effect of composing helped take my mind off of this dire situation even if for a couple of hours of a day.  Sadly, she lost her battle with cancer in October.  This music is dedicated to her.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have a fairly consistent group of musicians performing with the band!  Conceptually I wanted a big band full of improvisers.  My idea was that the rhythm section would be very interactive in all aspects and the music should be open enough to allow the rhythm section to be loose or tight as needed.  Sort of like the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis rhythm section is pretty loose behind the solos.  I definitely wanted a small group approach to big band. I feel that the album Jose Martí en Nueva York greatly reflects this approach!
Manuel Valera, June 2020

Track Details:

1. Odio La Mascara Y El Vicio (feat. Camila Meza) 8:27
2. Es Rubia, El Cabello Suelto (feat. Sofia Rei) 7:22
3. Por Sus Ojos Encendidos (feat. Camila Meza) 11:46
4. Yo Quiero Salir Del Mundo / Yo Pienso Cuando Me Alegro (feat. Camila Meza) 7:52
5. El Enemigo Brutal (feat. Sofia Rei) 10:08
6. Tiene El Leopardo Un Abrigo / Cultivo Una Rosa Blanca (feat. Sofia Rei) 7:57
7. Si Quiere Que De Este Mundo (feat. Sofia Rei) 8:07

Total CD run time: 61:39


Camila Meza (1, 3, 4)
Sofia Rei (2, 5, 6, 7)

John Walsh (Lead on 1, 3)
Brian Pareschi (Lead on 2, 4-7)
Michael Rodriguez
David Smith
Alex Norris

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)

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 all except 2, 5)
Mauricio Herrera (Percussion on 2, 5)

Production Credits:

Executive Producers: Dave Douglas, Roberto Occhipinti, Kabir Sehgal, Ali Hirsa and Manuel Valera
Producers: Kabir Sehgal, Doug Davis, Manuel Valera
Recording Engineer: Chris Benham
Mixing and Mastering Engineer: Oscar Autie
Recorded at Big Orange Sheep Studios on December 9-10, 2019
Mixed and Mastered at El Cerrito Studio CA
Portrait photography Mariana Meraz
Cover art by Josefina Soto Perez
Design by Lukas Frei


“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

Press Inquiries

Chris DiGirolamo
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