Elio Villafranca: The Source In Between
AAJ: In both Philadelphia and New York, did you ever deal with issues of expectationspeople assumed that since you were a Cuban jazz artist that you'd be playing Tito Puente style or like Poncho Sanchezvery straight Latin jazz. Whereas you might have wanted to explore more creative styles?
EV: All the time, all the time. Even today there is still a little bit of that. My new album is a little bit different. I took it to some promoters and they really love the album, but they still have this habit of saying, "I was hoping that you'd do..." After my album Encantations, they were expecting me to go into hot Latin jazz, the way they want to hear it. And they were like "OK, with Elio, that's going to be so Latin jazz like a heavy, heavy Afro-Cuban groove." And I said, "No, no, no, this is what I'm about." They see you as like, OK, you're from Cuba, you're a hot drummer, a hot pianist, something hot from Cuba has to come out of there. But if you present something different, then they are kind of in a way a bit disappointed. And they don't understand that music is so much bigger than that.
It's way bigger than stereotypes. And there are moments where you do those hot Latin things, but there are moments where you really want to expand, and you really want to put different things into play. I mean, I'm not stuck on the 1950s in Cuba, not on the 1980s in CubaI'm not stuck like that. Every time I meet somebody that teaches me something, it just changes me. Even this interview is changing me. And I cannot, every time I sit at the piano, be the same Elio, like a hot Latin jazz player. No, everything's in motion, everything's moving, and everything's evolving. And that's the same with music, yet still there is this burden that you get. If you are a pianist or musician from Cuba, they already know what you are going to play, and they already know what you are going to bring to the table. If you bring something else, then they are like, "Oh man, come on, you're from Cuba."
AAJ: You released your first album, Encantations in 2003. That was the first time that your compositions were heard naturally. I love your approach to compositionthe way that you have a defined feeling, a person or a place at the core of your song and you find the perfect musical context to express your concept, and for your listener to get it. What process do you go through to make that connection and compose in a way that brings across those strong feelings?
EV: I think composition to me is a very personal thing. And I think that I treat composition the same way I treat classical music. In general, I think that's when all those years of classical training really come into play. When I sit at the piano to compose something, I'm always thinking the whole song from beginning to end; not the solo section. I'm talking about just the song itself, the melody, that has to have development. And that's a concept that you really get in classical music. No matter what you do. If you use a twelve tone row, if you do romanticism, or you do baroque, whatever you do, the melody has to have development; it has to have a meaning. In jazz, there is a tendency for people lose that concept. Because basically jazz allows for anything. And of course, in jazz there are a lot of great composers, and there are a lot of them that are not so great. But they still could be considered jazz; it's very elastic in that sense.
In my approach to composition, I don't necessarily think that I'm writing something in jazz, I just think I'm writing music. I want to be able to write something that by the time I'm finished presenting the music, without the solos, people feel like, "OK, this is complete, this is nice." It needs a sense of elevation that they are starting at a place and then they just go and rest in another place. Of course, form is very important to me. And that's how I approach my composition. Most of my pieces have a story behind them. I don't just sit at the piano and write just for the sake of writing. There's always something behind it that motivates me to write the piece.
AAJ: I love that album, and one of the things that I notice on it is that Jane Bunnett plays a pretty big role. How did you meet her and build that relationship?
EV: Well, when I was in Philadelphia, she was touring the US, and something happened with her pianist where he couldn't make it. I was called in an emergency to sub for her pianist. I hadn't met her at that point, but I had heard her. She called me, and I said yes. We did a couple of concerts at a theater in Philadelphia and then from that point on, she's been calling me and I've been calling her. Actually, I've been touring with her quite extensively. We already went on another tour that I had in France and in Spain, we did that just a couple of weeks ago. And now we're going to do this Ireland tour and then I think next year we're going to do some other things that she is organizing. So we've just been going back and forth. I'm not her steady musician, but we collaborate on several projects every year.