Manuel Valera, a faculty at the Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music, has been nominated for the Grammy in the Best Latin Jazz category

Manuel Valera displays impressive speed and a boundless capacity for improvisation while manipulating the piano keys. Off the piano bench, he displays the same qualities while making decisions involving the mundane transactions of life. After a long uncertainty about a face-to-face interview with this Cuban jazz pianist and composer, he is finally requested for a direct meeting at the most inconvenient of times. He has to take an international flight in a few hours, but Valera agrees to stop at Sholinganallur — on the way from Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music (SAM), at Seekinankuppam Village on ECR, 20 km from Kalpakkam, to the airport — for a really, really quick chat.

Valera is expected to return to SAM, where he serves as faculty, on February 14, after attending the 55th annual Grammy Awards at Staples Center in Los Angeles, where he has been nominated for an award in the ‘Best Latin Jazz’ category for his album New Cuban Express. Is he feeling the nerves? “Until this moment, I have managed to stay cool,” he says, but quickly adds that he could sense the oncoming rush of the heebie-jeebies. His nervousness has mostly to do with having to present a few awards in the pre-telecast ceremony, taking place live for the first time.

Asked about how much value he attaches to awards, Valera says: “Certain awards come with monetary gains, and the Grammy is not among them. But it promotes a music career like no other: it gives the artiste greater visibility.”

On the making of New Cuban Express, which is in focus now, he says it was undergirded by a super-conscious effort to make it Cuban Latin music, also known as Cuban jazz. There is only a slight difference between Cuban jazz and Afro-Cuban jazz, but Valera left no stone unturned in making this work conform fully to the former. Spending his early years in Cuba, where he went to the Manuel Saumell Conservatory to learn music, and having lived most of his life in New York, which provides a fertile ground for Afro-Cuban jazz, 32-year-old Valera knew the right changes to be made to succeed in this exercise.

Asked if he has had a brush with Carnatic music, which thrives on improvisation as jazz does, he speaks of unforgettable sessions, where he matched his piano with the ghatam of Karthick, who teaches at SAM. He enjoys the fusion between the piano and Carnatic percussion and looks forward to taking up collaborative projects along these lines.