Home Masthead Elio Villafranca: The Musician Becomes The Music

Elio Villafranca: The Musician Becomes The Music


Elio-Villafranca-Drumming-FnlIn the music of this album Mr. Villafranca raises up his voice in an insightful intermingling of the awakening of the Orishas and a harking back to the elemental blues-filled inflections of Jazz. The colours and the light that are reflected and refracted from this double helix of a musical idiom stir up all kinds of emotions. The album seeks to push further the musical horizon that defines contemporary American music. The hypothesis that African-Caribbean music and African-American idioms represent a unified musical culture is what the pianist seeks to prove. And prove he does with distinct majesty. It is as if he were taking dictation from the Almighty. He exhales the music as others exhale air. Mr. Villafranca shows that he possesses a profound and profoundly self-aware mind and his unequaled facility has been founded upon a comprehensive knowledge of the traditions within which he was working. He has crammed more beauty into the music he spent working on for a great length of time and Incantations/Encantaciones is an attempt to catalogue his vast understanding of the visceral energy that was carousing in his head. The music is touching and very moving. Its simple melodies gradually morph into dramatic stories with extraordinary atmosphere. There are so many aspects to Elio Villafranca’s character that are imbued into just ten songs, which makes it all very interesting every time you hum them.

Elio-Villafranca-Ogun-FnlThe spirit of the Orishas in invoked in “Oguere’s Cha” Its somber beginning creates the solemn atmosphere for Pedrito Martinez’s chant with pointed phrasing that conveys the music’s solemnity such as in the rolling brilliance of the runs that draw out the rest of the group. The pianist gradually speeds up in the subsequent bars of the music in his solo, slightly adjusting his tempo as the introduction unfolds, and follows with the pronounced and vaunted arpeggios and sliding glissandos that unfold before the other soloists kick in. The album is so symphonic and dynamic and heroic. The charge of “El Hombre” and “Encantaciones Cubanas” create an incredible sound. Mr. Villafranca’s two hands provide a clipped and witty interplay with all of the members of his ensemble. You only have to listen to the marvellous differentiation between the steady staccato left hand and the edgy legato right-hand lines. The sustained tumbao is hard-hitting, yet elegant throughout. It brings a feathery lightness and rhythmic sparkle to songs such as “You Spoke Too Soon”, “Something Nice to Say About You” and even to “Orishaoko”. In fact with the entire repertoire of this album it is impossible to forget Mr. Villafranca’s idiomatic phrasing and accentuation of the folk-based melodies. The landscape of some are painfully sparse (“Encantaciones Cubanas”), an in other pieces I marvelled at the music’s dynamic extremes and the detailed integrity of Lucho Bermudez’s “Negrita, Prende la Vela”. Through it all Elio Villafranca observes the dynamics accurately and his articulation is also incredibly precise. The abject tenderness of the piece elicits wonderfully lithe, balletic playing from Mr. Villafranca. Here as elsewhere the pianist impresses for his supple technique, effortless contrapuntal acuity, singing tonne, tightly-knit tempo relationships and well-considered embellishments.

Elio-Villafranca-Profile-fnlAll this the pianist excites through a series of rhythmic changes, some of which are incredibly challenging. So complex is these that the polyphonic lines seem to emerge from two separate pianos, while Mr. Villafranca’s cluster chords are full-bodied and harmonically plangent. Another exciting piece is “Cacique” a rhythmic wonder-chart that rocks with the melodicism of the piano and the rhythmic beauty of the batá drums. The collision between African-Cuban and African-American rhythms takes on a magnificent romp through the Western Classical realm and is based on the Twelve-tone principals of Arnold Schoenberg. Layer upon layer of complex rhythms are sewed together by the extraordinary writing that features the screaming soprano saxophone of one of Elio Villafranca’s earliest musical cohorts, the ineffable Jane Bunnett. The naturally-gifted Elio Villafranca abounds in the music of tremendous colour and poetic sweep in every bar he has written for this album. Gilded phrases with changes of voicing and inner lines evoke memories of Frank Emilio Flynn and Peruchin without sounding in the least bit contrived. In his penultimate piece, “Orishaoko” for instance the powerful, assured shaping of the cross-rhythmic strands suggest a joyously tuned ensemble. Then “It’s Not That Serious” comes out from nowhere with quicksilver, shimmering lines, then settles into a rock-steady, multi-level melody with a harmony that ranges from gossamer filigree and utterly unsplintered rapid chord changes to whiplash climaxes that cut to the quick, yet retain resonance and definition. In short, Elio Villafranca in 2003 showed that he possesses an old soul in his young years and more than a touch of genius.

Elio Villafranca Frank EmilioBy the time 2007 Elio Villa Franca was exploring other avenues somewhat deeper. The source in between. One his eponymous name he had this to say: “The language of music is universal as are its elements, yet the source eludes us. It is somewhere in between the elements; in between harmonies and rhythms; in between players and listeners. In between your eyes.” When I spoke with him, he also had this to say: “You know, all through the time I spent in Cuba—in music school as well as outside—when playing with friends and other musicians, we also spoke about and played the music that attracted us at the time and that was jazz. I had been listening to radio and heard some of the great jazz players—Thelonious Monk and others… also our giants like Frank Emilio and Chucho Valdés had already been playing with jazz idioms. Anyway… this was a music that I was already deeply attracted to. So when I came to the United States, I got the opportunity to play this music with people I dreamed of… I also knew that there was a deeper connection between Afro-Cuban music and African-American music. This is the source in between: Cuban music and Jazz that is also how my next music adventure came about. “also on the record, he said, ”The Source in Between is a confirmation of an effort to write about my life, influenced by an array of musical forms and musicians as I aspire to transcend that boundaries of culture.” This is exactly the kind of thing that shows Elio Villafranca to be a seeker. A very deep seeker indeed!

Elio-Source-FnlThere is something very substantial about The Source in Between because it’s got all Mr. Villafranca’s youthful enthusiasm, skill and pianistic prowess, and profound. But it is also pointing to something very charismatic as it comes to almost the beginning of his young life. In many ways it was quite Frank Emilio-like, although he was polls apart from Frank Emilio. “The Source in Between” itself comes from a sort of San-Luis-New York, music-charmer tradition, but there is still something in the relaxed movements which remind me of Frank Emilio. I think it’s got this incredible kaleidoscope of different moods and atmospheres and skills. And with a lot of evidence of pianistic excellence it’s sort of like a coiled spring. There is a lot going on that is ready to burst. “Oddua Suite” is one of my favourite pieces on the record. It’s Elio Villafranca unfettered by academic convention and constraints. He’s just letting his hair down. It’s the most exuberant, lyrical and cheery series of African-Cuban rhythmic extravaganzas that you could possibly imagine. I first heard them when I was first premiering the album. Even though it was my first listen to the chart and I was familiar with some melodic-harmonic-rhythmic fantasies it had all the right ingredients of virtuosity and enchantment—it’s just beautiful. It is also the greatest fun to listen to. When you listen to it in lick-minded company everyone is just beaming from ear to ear.


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