Home Masthead Elio Villafranca: The Musician Becomes The Music

Elio Villafranca: The Musician Becomes The Music

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Elio-Villafranca-Cinque-2-FnlfnlExquisite albums have a habit of sometimes going unnoticed or circulating among collectors. The Flower by the Dry River. In a romantic notion about this record, I imagine that the Dry River is a metaphor for the eye, when the tears can fall no more. This is probably not what Elio Villafranca meant it to be, I think and am surprised to find that my fantasy was not very far from the truth. This album was recorded specially to raise funds for the DirectGrace Fund for children of the world subject to abuse, starvation, and poverty. The organisation also boasts a label DirectGrace Records is a unique music recording company that weds a passion for high-end vinyl recording to charitable giving. Dedicated to the world’s most at-risk children, part of the proceeds from the sale of each unique, high-definition record goes to organizations helping children in extreme poverty.

Elio-Flower-1The album features eight songs that are a bridge between what Mr. Villafranca had been dreaming of doing for his Suite and what had gone before. The music has great sweep and impetus. The thrust for the opening piece, a credible sort of allegro non troppo, while powerful, dramatic woodwind interjections bring an extra quota of drama to the title song. The music of the album flows seductively, with perfectly judged tempi, fanciful, fluidly phrased wind solos and some exotic percussion and the finale of the final piece, full of precise details works itself inexorably toward the final dénouement with great breadth around the apex of the song capsizing in the swells and eddies at the end. The album is superbly done, with a passionate central statement, of the elegiac theme and a broad set of pieces that surround it at the outer edges of the central piece. The pianist is at his venerable best and the performance is captured in the connoisseurs’ analogue stereo sound quality that is far better than all of the digital around the world.

Elio-Villafranca-Congolese-Slaves-Drumming-FnlAnd now the year is 2015. When Elio Villafranca and I caught up little over a month ago he was excited. He was polishing elements of his most ambitious project to date: Cinqué: Suite of the Caribbean a monumental suite that would traverse the musical topography of the entire region and the Diaspora of African-Caribbean peoples. There is no work that is more challenging than this monumental work. It is conceived as a chamber work that is both lyrically intense and theatrically riveting. It is unlike anything that Elio Villafranca has ever written or performed before a sort of highlight of highlights conceived in great detail made magical by the extreme vocal quality of the instrumentation. The music is played by a galaxy of stars: the legendary Jon Faddis on trumpet; Leyla McCalla on cello, banjo and vocals; Michael Rodriguez on trumpet; Vincent Herring on alto saxophone, flute and clarinet; Steve Turre on trombone; Greg Tardy on tenor saxophone and clarinet; Michele Wright on bass clarinet and clarinet; Gregg August on bass; Willie Jones III on drums; Arturo Stable and Jonathan Troncoso on percussion and the ever graceful Leticia Hechavarria who tells some of the finer details of the narrative in graceful swirling and twirling dance.

Elio-Villafranca-Tambor-Yuka-Jass-Synchopators-1-FnlThe suite was premiered at the Appel Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center in February 2015. Masterfully conceived the repertoire was a musical journey in five parts: “Cinqué/The Capture/Troubled Waters”, “Maluagda / La Burl de Los Congos / Madre Agua (Yaya Baluande)”, “Indigo / Mesi Bondye, The Night at Bois Caiman / Burn Down the Fields” and “Comparsa”. The movements represented a diverse range of colors, textures, rhythms, melodic call and response and solos accented by traditional dance that sweeps across the Caribbean from Cuba to Haiti, the Dominican to Puerto Rico and Jamaica. Cinqué: Suite of the Caribbean is a production that might easily me etched in the memory as a monumental suite of mythic proportions. Audiences who were there for its premiere would have been alternatively dazzled by its musical brilliance and the lavishness of the pantomime and appalled by the brutality of its narrative of slavery. The brain-flooding panorama of the 19th Century story of slavery, revolt and freedom is matched by the sumptuousness and rhythmic extravagance of the music and the multi-dimensional characters embedded in the story. The composer has made some choices in melodic invention here that gives the programme a wonderful integrity of ideas and a breathtaking sweep of emotion.

Elio-COngo-Freedom Cinqué: Suite of the Caribbean is a production that might easily me etched in the memory as a monumental suite of mythic proportions. Audiences who were there for its premiere would have been alternatively dazzled by its musical brilliance and the lavishness of the pantomime and appalled by the brutality of its narrative of slavery. The brain-flooding panorama of the 19th Century story of slavery, revolt and freedom is matched by the sumptuousness and rhythmic extravagance of the music and the multi-dimensional characters embedded in the story. The composer has made some choices in melodic invention here that gives the programme a wonderful integrity of ideas and a breathtaking sweep of emotion. The first movement had a dark rumbling rhythm that provides an aural panorama of the setting from the musical topography that stretches from Sierra Leone to Cuba. The second movement is whimsical and witty, with puckish twists and turns of the melodic narrative. The third movement captures with telling intimacy the music that binds the Congolese groans under the weight of slavery. This soon uplifting as we traverse to the moment of freedom in the fourth movement. The fifth movement is ebullient and singing. The pianos floating high notes rise beautifully and swirl into the theatrical elements of the triumph of human endeavour.

Elio-Villafranca-broken-piano-FnlCinqué – The Suite of the Caribbean, is a major new milestone in Elio Villafranca’s career as a composer. Although the inspiration for the story of the African slave, Joseph Cinqué, who led the rebellion aboard the ship Amistad in 1839 on his voyage to Cuba from Sierra Leone, the narrative belongs to Elio Villafranca. How he sews together the musical diaspora of the African-Caribbean peoples is marvellously conceived and executed. And it is pure Elio Villafranca. The suite is superbly done, with passionate central statement of the story of the history of slavery right down to the broad closing chord that is at once disquieting and serene. It is a venerable piece of music featuring among other things some superb horn work by Jon Faddis and spectacular performances by Greg Tardy, Gregg August and the brilliant Leyla McCalla.

This is a work for the ages. The multimedia performance left an indelible mark on my mind’s mind and in my heart. And I like many who watched the breathtaking performances, await its release on DVD and on CD. I would then watch and listen to that concert and music again and again. And I have not yet had the opportunity to tell Elio Villafranca how exhausted with wonder I am. I wish I had when the opportunity arose. We have since become separated by a thousand miles or more, but I find that I feel closer to him than ever before. Meeting with a remarkable musician can do that to you.

Main photograph on page 1 © Martin Cohen

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