Home Masthead Elio Villafranca: The Musician Becomes The Music

Elio Villafranca: The Musician Becomes The Music


Elio-Villafranca-with-Greg-TardyI have listened to many works, even played some on the piano and I am going to include the wonderful “Alla” among them now. The breathy intermezzi in the song make for one of the most breathtaking relationships between sound and silence. Why? When it comes to love we cannot explain it. I am listening to it now and feel this bathed in its mystery. It is three years since I first heard the piece. Something in it struck my heart as I listened to it and I fell in love with it for the rest of my life. And then there is “A Las Milas” and more than anything else the heartbreaking beauty of “Cuba Linda”. These are among the finest pieces that I have ever heard. The quality of writing is top-notch. It would seem that Elio Villa Franca showed, once again, that he was a musician and composer who understood the meaning of the melding of voices and what made the piano a piano. He knew also what it took to let loose the lyrical elements in music, in such a manner as to show his sublime skill as a composer, something many composers lack. The graceful slurs and other pianistic devices in the slow development of the latter are truly remarkable. They make this piece “Cuba Linda” into a most beautiful outpouring of this heartfelt elegy. And then like strains of gossamer in fading light the emotions simply melt away making me want to cry.

Elio-Villafranca-and-Gian-Carla-Tissera-FnlIn August of 2014 Elio Villafranca became inextricable linked to a rather special project. A rather Avant-garde one actually. The record was called Nora la Bella and featured the Bolivian soprano, Gian-Carla Tisera singing music that was a heady mix of Bolivian folkloric fare drenched in a slew of Latin American metaphors with Jazz idioms slashing their way through the music from end-to-end. Although the record is a vehicle for the devastatingly beautiful colouratura and melismatic brilliance of Ms. Tisera, it is also Elio Villafranca unfettered by academic constraint. He’s letting his hair down here as well. It is a most exuberant, lyrical and gem of a recording if you can imagine it. Part of the uniqueness of the recording is that Ms. Tisera has a radiant personality and this shines through in her music. She is able to create a tug at the heartstrings and a leap in in the soul with music that describes her grandmother and her mother’s courage in the face of enormous adversity. This physical and spiritual melisma is heart-rending not simply because the pristine nature of her voice, but also the dramaturgy of her recitatives, in “Nora la Bella,” “Luz y Madre” and in “Mujer, Niña y Amiga.”

Elio-Villafranca-Nora-Cvr-FnlThemes of the strength of women abound elsewhere as well, but it is not without pain that this ascension of the woman takes place. The physical aspect of the emotion attached to women—mothers and grandmothers, and eventually to the heart of Ms. Tisera as well—is palpable. Themes of revolution also abound. Above all, Ernesto “Che” Guevara is revered. While this may be a somewhat controversial stance taken by the artist it must be emphasised that there is a romantic element that cannot be ignored too, especially when harking back to the ideals of Che Guevara, and even though it is unsaid, of Simon Bolivar as well. The music here has a dark almost colour and is almost viscous in the handling of the tone textures by Elio Villafranca. Examples of this fine music can be found in “Ernesto in the Tomb” and “The People United”. There is also a spectacular example also in the song based on the words that Che was known to utter when he was departing from his revolutionary colleagues: “Hasta Siempre.”

Elio-Villafranca-and-Gian-Carla-Tisera-2-FnlElio Villafranca is quite the protagonist and he also makes his personality shine through compositionally and as an arranger of great repute. And then there is Elio Villafranca, the pianist. His pianism here is absolutely flawless. His work here is reminiscent of what an accompanist in Lieder is all about: He knows when to shine and when to withdraw from the limelight. This is true of all great Lieder pianists especially those who perform the works of Franz Schubert and Gustav Mahler. Not only Mr. Villafranca, but all of the other musicians as well are perfect for this performance. For instance, while bassist Luques Curtis is sublime, bassist John Benitez performs a miraculous set on “Alfonsina y el mar,” that other classic folkloric melody so embedded in the fabric of Latin America. However, all is not dark and grim and revolutionary. Gian-Carla Tisera is witty too and the charts “Señora Chichera” and “Lejania” are good examples. And “Amarilli” is just plain radiant and beautiful. With this recording, Ms. Tisera’s career may be going places where she never dreamt it would go. And she will be adored as well.

Elio Villafranca Jass Syncopators blueThe importance of Elio Villafranca’s next record Caribbean Tinge could never be overstated. First of all, Chick Corea called it “passionate. A brand new application of ancient ways.” Wynton Marsalis went on to describe the writer and musician as an inspired visionary musician. “With his band, The Jass Syncopators, “he said, “Elio expands what Jelly Roll Morton called The Spanish Tinge to what Elio calls The Caribbean Tinge. The band swings hard and brings a traditional yet innovative style to the roots of Jazz and Afro-Caribbean music”. “I am profoundly moved by Elio’s vision and musicianship,” Mr. Marsalis continued, “He is a treasured member of the family at Jazz at Lincoln Center”. Indeed Mr. Villafranca did not disappoint when he premiered this new music at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in June of 2011 and November of 2011, before committing the music for posterity on Motema Music in 2012.

Elio-Villafranca-Tambor-Yuka-Jass-Synchopators-2-FnlI watched the music unfold as it was streamed live from the Lincoln Center and I soon understood what all of the noise was about. Mr. Villafranca has not only experienced an epiphany where, in his uninhibited spirit the music came to him in an apocalyptic shout: In Cuba, he told me when we talked, the concept of musical syncopation is at the heart of every musical genre, whether it is the African-Cuban traditions of Santeria, Palo, Yuka, Makuta, Arará and Abakuá, – to Son Montuno, Danzón , Mambo, Cha-Cha-Chá and many more. I knew, of course, that he was born into the Congolese tradition of Tambor Yuka, native to San Luis, in the province of Pinar del Rio. The epiphany went like this: he would make music that was an inebriated collision of his own Caribbean diaspora—such as Bomba—from Puerto Rico and Tambor Palo from the Dominican and Haiti and his deep African-Cuban roots. Mr. Villafranca had been flirting with the idea ever since the conception of The Source in Between. In combining this volatile mix of Caribbean Tinge with a band he called The Jass Syncopators, he would pay homage to pioneers of Jazz, such as Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington whose syncopated approach to Jazz Mr. Villafranca melded into Jelly Roll Morton’s unique Spanish Tinge.

Elio-Villafranca-Jass-Syncopators-Cvr-FnlOne of the hallmarks of the album is its richness and modernism. How it drives the tradition into contemporary realm at warp speed. In “Sunday Stomp at Congo Square” Mr. Villafranca explodes out of the proverbial gates. The pianist leads the musicians with as many as three percussionists at a time surrounding the colourations of the drummer in sections that blow up as the rhythmists embrace pianist brass and woodwinds. It is almost as if the music processes in and out of church into a wild romp in the legendary Congo Square. Here as well as in “Flower by a Dry River” the pianist delivered on a promise to himself to raise the quintessential spirits of his ancestors and those of the musical bloodline from where he took birth. It is incredibly how Mr. Villafranca managed to create instruments that were so disparate in texture and timbre in practically the same register. It’s only that the playing techniques that are very different. In “Two to Tango” playing at acute angles from the magnificent tenor saxophonist Greg Tardy and (a personal favourite of mine) trumpeter Sean Jones, Mr. Villafranca the two musicians draw in the other members of the ensemble into music of a mix of beauty, but subtlety of complexity. I love the breakneck speed of “The Source in Between” width its width of the space of the notes, especially with the monumental thunder and gravitas of bassist Gregg August and the rattle and hum of the drums of Willie Jones III. This is so inebriated by emotion and deep, soulful song that virtuosity has no room there and that’s what I love about this piece and this, Elio Villafranca’s most prominent album to date.


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