Home Masthead Elio Villafranca: The Musician Becomes The Music

Elio Villafranca: The Musician Becomes The Music

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Elio-Villafranca-and-Arturo-Stable-2-Fnl“Luna” is probably the finest piece of music written for the horn of Yosvany Terry, in terms of the quality of writing. Mr. Villafranca innately understands what makes the horn a horn and how it relates to the piano. It is a positively stately piece. And the composer knew exactly what it took to bring out the (both Eric Alexander’s and Yosvany Terry’s horns) instrument’s most satisfying lyrical side in a way that many other composers before and after didn’t really get. The dalliances of tempo is remarkable; it’s very constrained, very calm, almost icy blue calm, until the extraordinary final dénouement in the last couple of lines where this large elemental anguish comes out, and then it goes away again. It’s truly extraordinary. I often listen to all of the works on this record over and over again sometimes and I’m also going to include the wonderful “In the Dark” as one of my other favourites in this repertoire. Why? Even when it comes to crepuscular stuff I cannot explain it. It’s abject beauty. But I remember when I heard it for the first time. It was like having an epiphany. Then as I listened to it several times over and began to sing its melody, something struck my heart. As I listened again and I find that I am falling in love with it every time it comes to mind yet again.

Thelonious-Monk-2-fnlFor me pieces of The Source in Between are all about feelings related to coming to a crossroads and pausing in wonder at the possibilities that lie ahead. It’s like a life story. From the first phrase to the last there’s so much expectation. It takes you through this long journey and when you get to the last chord you feel that you have reached the end. It really touches my heart, because even before I have played and sung some of the pieces to myself, it was a series of pieces that had come to be seared in my memory. I can visualise myself even now almost as a little kid listening in wonder, gazing glacially into space listening to this incredible music. Mr. Villafranca’s writing here is amazing—so well-crafted and well thought out, and the piano parts are equally brilliant. Put the whole thing together and you’ve got a work of genius. Just two records as a leader and there is already a willingness to consider Elio Villafranca as an important composer worthy of the highest epithet and accolades as an African-Cuban and now as an African-American in the broadest sense of the term. His works speak for themselves. And as a pianist he is already beginning to be worthy of being spoken of in the same breath as Frank Emilio, Peruchin and Chucho Valdés. His virtuosity is comparable to all three of the men. And he also beginning to be mesmerised, coming under the spell of Thelonious Monk. His angularity is drawing him into the same vortex as Mr. Monk was drawn into. He is developing a sense of humour and some attractive eccentricities that to my mind come from being so immersed in the rhythm of the African-Cuban drum.

Elio-Villfranca-and-Charles-Flores-FnlIt is hard not to think of Elio Villafranca as a genius already. I have always believed that artistic genius is something inexplicable; this is at the very heart of its defining physiognomy. Those artists who live with this internal enigma are unable to reveal its mysteries and secrets. Geniuses play like children and are completely absorbed by these contradictions, ill at ease in a world of mundaneness, sometimes alarmed by their own uniqueness snow-blinded by a truth, which common mortals can only dimly perceive, and swept away by a primordial force that is so beyond them. A genius views the world with the immensity of the child’s eye; creates and innovates as he or she were born to, for in a genius it is an unbridled intellect that predominates over the will, which, in turn, allows the creation of artistic—or academic—works of pure contemplation, bereft of interest, specific or otherwise. And Elio Villafranca fits the bill here on so many counts. And his journey has not even begun. He had not even got to Dos y Mas that landmark of an album he made with the ineffable percussion colourist Arturo Stable. That record was to return Mr. Villafranca to cultural topography of an African-Cuban immersed in vitality of the African diaspora. The feelings of the vitality of African-Cuban rhythms were already in evidence in Incantations/Encantatciones and in more subtle ways on The Source in Between. These feelings—proclivities really—were to rise like the first of a series of tidal waves in his music.

Elio-Villafranca-Dynamic-Resolution-Cvr-FnlIt would seem that to prepare himself for the intimacy of the duet that was to follow Elio Villafranca recorded a classic and seminal album with the late (and it is not a cliché to call him) great bassist Charles Flores. The album Dynamic Resolution released in 2011 on vinyl brought a pianist of unbridled genius together with a bassist of unbridled genius. Elio Villafranca spoke of the odyssey as an attempt to work in the spirit of jazz-meets-classical music. Under normal circumstances that would seem like a trite statement, but both men were the serious about the musical collision. Moreover their interaction magical and had a mystical edginess as well. The majesty and mysteriousness of the album still remains for me a superior piece of mastery. The darkness and the preeminent effervescence and the mystic nature of the album blossoms with the two musicians’ “big” symphonic-like melodies in the major and minor keys. It is so soft compared to other music in the same vein and the spirits of other duos hangs deliciously over this musical episode. The young composers and performers had the ingenuity to build their own universes. When melodies appear on this record, it is like the sun is shining suddenly after the darkness of the spaces in between. I am aware of Elio Villafranca’s brilliance, but I also want to make special mention of Charles Flores here. His singing tone and dancing manner is a miracle of sound for me on this astonishing record.

Elio-Villafranca-Dos-y-Mas-Cvr-FnlIn many ways, Elio Villafranca’s next album Dos y Mas (2012) was a hint of things to come two and three years later when all of his African-Caribbean and African-American Jazz influences coalesced into a monumental dance of the drum. This is remarkable because on this album it seemed as if both Elio Villafranca and Arturo Stable were pianists and percussionists at the same time. Dos y Mas is as much a piano concerto as it is a drum record that devolves into a double-helix-like dance of piano and drum. It has some of the most amazing slow movements as in “1529”. You can feel the youth of it and the old-soul natures of the musicians. And you can sense in the slow movements tenderness as well as a gravitas well beyond the personality and years of Mr. Villafranca. And there are also moments of immense celestial movements especially when the two musicians launch into Elio Villafranca’s composition “Arara” a vocative addressing the Orishas via the Camaguey province of Cuba. There’s a phrase in that song somewhere towards the middle of the second chorus when piano and drum play together which seems to come from the sky. What I love to do when I hear this is to dance to the azure pianistic colouratura, even as I sing slanting my voice to the acute angles of piano and drum. It is then that I have an idea of what Elio Villafranca can be: It can be a baptism-like immersion in excited waters swirling with fragrant essential oils. The pianist makes you, after that, want to embrace someone very warmly.

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