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Elio Villafranca: Five Islands & A Revolt

John Ephland By

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EV: Solo sections are the last thing I think about when I'm creating a new work. My main interest is to write a strong piece of music that could stand on its own, without the need of a soloist. When I'm composing I think more like a classical composer than a jazz musician, and once this first phase is done, then I consider developing a solo section, backgrounds, and what would be the best instrumentation for the music. Deciding who the soloist are in a particular piece is a different process. I carefully choose the soloist depending on a particular sound and message I want to create in the music. For example, in a movement section "The First Colony," I wanted to musically represent the first encounter between the Maroons, who were fugitive black slaves, and the few Native American Taino or Arawak people who survived the Spanish invasion by hiding in the hills and creating the first colonies of free people. In this case, I asked Steve Turre to play the shells over the Congo-derived rhythm called salve. Another example is the type of harmony I used in the section called "Night of Fire: Burn Down the Field." This part was inspired by the 1730 Jamaican revolt known as "The First Maroon War," which was led by the great Maroon leader Cudjoe against the original British colony of Jamaica. "Burn Down the Field" was the order Cudjoe gave to his army of Maroons after freeing the slaves from a sugar, coffee, or indigo plantation.  I used the high register dissonant chords in this section to give the impression of fire burning houses and plantations, while the rhythmic combination of cha-cha-cha played in the congas with an specific bass line creates the feeling of Maroons hiding in the sugar plantation with torches. While I have an ensemble with a wide range of musical possibilities, I'm also careful not to overly orchestrate the music because I also enjoy the concept of transparency and space in the music.

AAJ: As for personnel, the process of picking who you picked, including your later additions... why them?

EV: A large part in the creative process went into selecting the musicians, researching materials and traveling to places to experience the culture firsthand, with the sole intention to share with my supporters a product of artistic integrity and authenticity. Similar to Duke Ellington, some of the music I write is with a specific sound and musician in mind. The first step is to select a group of musicians who you have a good relationship with and can best deliver the artistic statement I aim to present. For Cinque, I wanted to have a band composed of musicians with different backgrounds and heritages. It was important for me to have musicians from the islands I was representing in order to create the most authentic sound in the music. Some of the music included in Cinque is religious-based; therefore, I feature members of that specific religious group or community. In the band I featured musicians/percussionists from the islands of Cuba, Haiti, Puerto Rico, Santo Domingo as well as leading jazz musicians from the U.S. This way the music always swings, no matter which style is being played, jazz or Afro-Caribbean.

Photo credit: Kasia Idzkowska


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