From its earliest days, American jazz has been influenced by its southern neighbors, from Mexico, Argentina, Puerto Rico, and Cuba. Jazz rhythm and phrasing reflects the clave beat of much Afro-Cuban music, but the connections extend to melody, harmony, and structure as well. The great New Orleans pianist and composer Jelly Roll Morton famously referred to the "Spanish tinge" in his music, which often incorporated elements of the habanera and the tango. Juan Tizol, a valve trombonist and composer from Puerto Rico, joined Duke Ellington in 1929, adding his particular brand of Latin and Near Eastern exotica to the band's repertoire, including such numbers as "Caravan," "Moonlight Fiesta," and "Conga Brava." Just two years later, the Cuban pianist Don Azpiazu released "The Peanut Vendor," which was probably the first recording by a Latin band to become a major hit in the United States. Bebop came into fashion in the 1940s, and the Cuban connection became more pronounced when conga player Chano Pozo came to New York in 1947 and made a major impact in Dizzy Gillespie's big band. Pozo was killed the next year, but Gillespie maintained a strong interest in Cuba and Cuban music to the end of his life. Bop and Latin music merged in New York in bands such as the one led by Machito and became an integral element in the artistic and entertainment life of the city.

More recently, a new wave of Cuban and other Latin American pianists has had a strong impact on contemporary jazz. In 1996 Danilo Pérez released PanaMonk, which made a very strong impression on the jazz community, as did concerts and recordings by older musicians such as Rubén Gonzáles, Hilario Durán, and others. Political difficulties notwithstanding, new players keep showing up to push the music into new directions. One of the new faces on the scene is

pianist Manuel Valera, who returns to Ann Arbor this month after his dramatic debut here last year. Hilario Durán, who was scheduled to play at the Kerrytown Concert House last November, had last-minute border problems and was replaced by Valera, who immediately established his own rapport with the audience. The performance by the twenty-three-year-old newcomer was a great success.

Valera began his musical training in Cuba, studying classical saxophone, and switched to the piano when he arrived in this country a decade ago. Well versed in the classics, he obtained a degree from the New School in New York, where he studied under Reggie Workman and many other experienced jazz musicians, but his playing definitely reaches beyond academic competence. Valera demonstrated, though in a restrained and subtle manner, that he has complete mastery over his instrument and a full command of contemporary jazz and Latin idioms. Most impressive was the individual manner in which he brought these elements together and the rhythmic and yet delicate lyrical quality of his approach.

He returns to Kerrytown Concert House on Friday, August 19, with a quartet that includes tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin, bassist Hans Glawischnig, and the fabulous drummer Adam Cruz.

[Review published August 2005]