Elio Villafranca: The Source In Between


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The whole entire album, I could do a completely different version--a straight ahead Latin Jazz version with the conga and everybody else. And I could do that with most of the music in the album, and I would feel very comfortable.
Elio VillafrancaCuban born pianist Elio Villafranca has spent a lifetime observing the space between different worlds. He spent his childhood in the small Piñar de Rio region on the Western coast of Cuba and then jumped into the centralized bustle of Havana. He went through a broad and varied musical education that not only focused on the piano, but also included intensive investigations of the guitar, percussion, and composition. He immersed himself in the complex musical constructions of Havana's academic classical music world, and then struggled to explore jazz and Cuban popular music on his own. He moved from the island life of his childhood into the urban settings of Philadelphia and later, New York. He experienced massive crowds of crazed fans while performing with Cuban artist Carlos Varela, and then transitioned into small intimate crowds in American jazz clubs. As a stateside musician he has worked in traditional Latin jazz settings and free-form exploratory modern jazz groups, both as a performer and composer. In so many ways, Villafranca is a man with a very broad perspective.

It seems only natural that Villafranca's musical concept explores relationships between musical worlds. The connections between musical genres appear naturally for Villafranca, whose songwriting devices touch upon modern jazz, Afro-Cuban traditions, and classical composition techniques. Where many of us see differences between musical worlds, Villafranca sees similarities. He can see a single composition through a variety of lenses, placing it easily in a straight ahead jazz setting or within the world of Afro-Cuban rhythms. He understands these musical relationships on an instinctual and academic level, making his genre-bending experiments both natural and informed. His two albums as a leader—Incantations/Encantaciones (Universal Latino, 2003) and The Source In Between (Ceiba Tree, 2008)—reflect the duality of his musical personality, with each album focusing upon a different musical world. Yet the strength of his musical foundation and highly developed artistic personality bursts through stylistic borders, providing a steady guide as Villafranca explores the source in between musical cultures.

All About Jazz: You grew up in San Luis on the western coast of Cuba, where your primary exposure to music as a child was cultural. One of the cultural elements that you've mentioned in the past was the Tambor Yuka tradition. For our AAJ readers not familiar with Cuban culture, can you explain a little bit about the tradition—what makes it unique to the Piñar del Rio region and how it impacted you?

Elio Villafranca: Cuba as many other people know was one of the last countries to liberate the slave. Actually the slave trade in Cuba lasted way longer than after all the slaves were "officially" free. In Cuba the freedom of the slaves was not a pact or a treaty like in the United States where they decided to free the slaves and just move on and use machines for labor. Cuba, since it was not very advanced in machinery, was still treating people like slaves for a lot of years after everything was already over. What that means is that we were still receiving slaves from Africa

You see these movies like Amistad (1997), and all these horrible stories, where the British put all these ships on the seas just to punish those who were still trading slaves. All these horrible stories where they were bringing boats of slaves and they would see the police ships so they would throw all the slaves in the sea—I mean, those horrible stories. At the same time, what that says is that we had a lot of slaves coming into Cuba. And that's what made Cuba, in this particular sense, very special. Because we had more opportunities to integrate into our own culture all these beautiful traditions from Africa.

San Luis, being close to Havana, one of the main ports of Cuba, received a lot of slaves to work in the fields. It's pretty much flat with numerous sugar cane and tobacco fields, and other small crops. I noticed that every time there was a celebration in town, people from many areas of the San Luis region would come into the middle of the town and would make all these huge fires and bring these big drums; for me, it was very interesting. As a kid, it was not necessarily a cultural thing, but this whole event that transpired between the drums and the fire—it was so very intense. And it was not until much later when I went to music school that I discovered that these were people from the Congolese culture. Then I realized that since I was a very young age, I had been exposed to those elements, not knowing exactly what they were.

And then, as for all the regions of Cuba...from my hometown, we have the Congolese culture which has several different branches. You have the Tambor Yuka, which is the drum festival that they do in Piñar del Rio. You have also Tambor Makuda, and then you have Tambor Palo. In those three, you have different kinds of drums, but they are all encompassed in the same culture. Then you have, in other regions, the Abakua, which is a kind of a culture that came from a different region of Africa. Then you have the culture of the Lucumi, which is the culture that encompasses the Yoruba, which has a tremendous amount of Orishas. Every Orisha has their own chant and their own dance, and their own dress—everything. And then you also have the Arara which is similar to the Yoruban tradition, just because—before they even came to Cuba, the Arara, who were based in Dahomey (now Benin), were conquered by the Yorubans.

Yoruba was one of the biggest kingdoms in Africa, and when they were expanding, they conquered the Arara people. And then they had to integrate their religious concepts into their culture—that's why in Arara, you have almost the same number of saints or Orishas that you have in the Yoruban culture, they just changed the name. The same thing happened in Cuba between the slaves and the Hispanics. The Cuban slaves could believe in Christianity, but they said, "OK, we're going to name our Orishas after your saints, so we'll know what we're talking about." Basically, they say we're going to call her Chango Santa Barabara, instead of calling her Chango. And Babalu Aye, we're going to call him San Lazurus. They would put a saint in front, and that's exactly what the Arara people did—in a way to fool their lords. They didn't use the word saint, of course; they did it in their own native language.

After the Haitian revolution there was a huge migration from Haiti to the Eastern part of Cuba, the Oriente. We got the Tumba Francesa from them that developed in the Eastern part of Cuba at that time. And then we've got some other different groups of culture that are kind of disappearing. One is called Gaga—I remember interviewing these two old ladies who were the only people remaining from that culture. They had everything written in books and they were kind of afraid that after they passed away, the whole culture would die, if nobody else took over. As you can see, Cuba is amazingly blessed with a great number of songs, chants, rituals, and instruments...you name it. It's very interesting.

AAJ: You also grew up next to the Cuban House of Culture. Was that an exposure to more popular types of Cuban music?

Elio VillafrancaEV: Yeah, I had that opportunity there, which was beneficial, because in my family there are no musicians. When I look at the history of Cuban musicians, it's a blessing to have a father or mother or cousin or uncle that has been in touch with music; it really makes a big difference. A lot of my friends—Chuchito Valdes, the Terry family—they all have a family that has been involved with music and it's so interesting, because they have that firsthand. In my case, there were no musicians in my family; my mom was a kindergarten teacher, and my father was an accountant. My brother was interested in medicine, and that's it, that's what it was. I had double the work! But luckily, next to my house was la Casa del Cultura. When the carnivals were happening in Cuba, in San Luis, they would do the rehearsals right there. I remember going into my backyard, because you could see from my backyard to the wall, and if you went over the wall, you could see all the rehearsals and everything. I remember spending afternoons just watching rehearsals for the carnival and the comparsas and everything.

And then also, they would give classes there. I started as a painter. That was my very first introduction into art. I did a year of painting, and then after that picked up the guitar. I was playing guitar for two years; I had a really great teacher. In Cuba, the system is kind of interesting, at least it was at that point, because when you are becoming a musician, it doesn't matter what level you are at—you can be one of the best guitar players, but you still have to serve in whatever place was handed you. And my teacher, who was graduating as a musician in Havana, was a really good guitarist, and they just sent him to serve as a teacher in la Casa del Cultura and to teach us how to play guitar. So at a very early age he was introducing me to Leo Brauer guitar pieces—which I still remember! It's very interesting, because if I were to play the guitar now, that's the thing that I would know how to play! And then we also formed a band—we were like eight to nine years old—and we were going to festivals and playing together. In that group, I was playing guitar and bass, all these interesting things. And that's how I got into music.

When I was old enough to apply to a music school, we didn't have a whole lot of opportunities in my hometown. This big commission would go through the entire island having auditions to get kids. By the time they got to San Luis, which is a town in the middle of nowhere, most of the fun instruments for me were already taken. I wanted to apply for guitar, but when I got there, there were no more guitar spots. You know in Cuba, they say, well we have 10 places for guitar—if in the music school in that year 10 guitar players had graduated, that's how many beds they have available to accommodate people, that's it, they only have 10 people. There was nothing for guitar; there was nothing that I wanted after guitar, there were just percussion instruments left and trombone, and some other kinds of instruments.

So I decided to go and do percussion because a cousin of mine was with a group of kids that were playing together, and he was the drummer. So then I said, at least I'm familiar with that—I know what percussion is. I thought that I was going to be playing trap drums, so I signed into percussion. But my surprise was, when I got into school it was a classical training. So I keep thinking, "when am I going to see the drums?" It was all classical training, a pure European classical thing. And eventually I fell in love with it. I did my Masters in Percussion and down along the way, that was when I picked up the piano. And then when I finished my school as a percussionist also doing piano, I got the opportunity to go to the University and do my Masters in Composition. So basically I did all of that, and here I am.

AAJ: And so you were doing piano the whole time then? It wasn't like you made a conscious switch, it was just kind of natural?

EV: Well, at some point I had to make a conscious switch. You have to take piano, but again it's classical piano. So it's kind of like you have to take it—sometimes it felt like you were taking medicine, you have to do it. It's not by choice. But I remember when I made that conscious choice of really being a pianist.

In Havana, the music school was built out of this very fancy old country club—the only country club that was really famous in Havana before the Revolution, and they made it into a music school. It's called the Cubana Cantalan area, and it has beautiful houses, and what the Revolution did is to say "this house is going to be for trumpet, this house is going to be for percussion," so basically you have all these small campuses, one just for the instrument that you are practicing. But the dorms were still in the same place, so everybody slept in the same place.

I remember the percussion faculty campus was right on this big intersection and it was a very key location, so that's where we used to do all the jam sessions and everything. Because the percussionists were the ones that leaned towards popular music. The pianists were all classical, and everybody else was really into classical music. The percussionists could do both—we could do the classical part, but we would also do a rumba, do a this or that, you know. And then we used to do the jam sessions there. Since there was no pianist that could really do jazz or anything, everytime we would go in to do the jams, there was no pianist, so I'd say, "OK, I'll play the piano." Because there was no one to play the piano.

Then when I started to play the piano, it got to the point that every time there was a jam session, people would start directly looking at me, saying, "OK, you're going to be the pianist." I was thinking "But I want to play drums!" But there were so many drummers already, so I said okay. And then I started to get so used to being the pianist for those events, that I decided to make a conscious decision: if I really want to do this, then I want to study jazz, and I want to do it really well. And that was when I really started to focus in on jazz and then I got my first gig as a pianist.

First I made my own jazz ensemble and started going to jazz festivals in Havana, the festival that they do every year. And then I got a gig from Carlos Varela, who was an up-and-coming artist. He asked me if I wanted to be the pianist for his band and then my whole career as a pianist just started taking over to the point where most people in Cuba know me more as a pianist than they do as a percussionist. And then for me to get into jazz, I started going to people's homes, such as Chucho Valdes' home, and Pucho Lopez's home; all these pianists that I really admired at that time.

Just to ask Ruben Gonzalez or Rubalcaba to teach me something or I could write something. They had access to Real Books and then I would go there with a pencil and a lot of blank music sheets and just sit there for hours just writing things. Writing either a Chick Corea solo or Herbie Hancock solo. It was very tedious, but I was willing to just go, while they were practicing I was just writing music. Then I'd come back to the school with some new music that I could learn.

AAJ: So these guys like Chucho and Gonzalo—they were pretty available to you then, to serve as mentors?

EV: They were, yeah. They were really open about those things. They were really busy though, so of course you would have to plan it. And you would not believe how many times I missed the meeting, because we don't have a phone system that really works. And sometimes we'd agree on one day and then they wouldn't be there. I would just sit around in their house waiting. But I'm telling you, it would take you the whole day. For example, Gonzalo used to live more in the central Havana area and I used to live in the Playa, which is not far if you own a car and you just go. But it's far if you take the bus—it would take you two hours to get there, assuming there was a bus there waiting for you in the first place. Because most of the time, you have to wait for another hour just to get the bus.

Elio Villafranca

So in many cases, it would be another two or three hours, I mean it was completely crazy. And then you would go in the bus, very excited, get there, knock on the door, and—oh, he's not here. I'm just going to wait, you sit down, and it's five o'clock, oh my god, I have to go back to school because I'm going to miss my dinner. At school, if you didn't go at exactly dinnertime, you miss your dinner. And constantly, I'd have to be making all these choices. Do I stay here longer to wait until they come, so I can copy some music, or do I go and eat? And the system was set up in a way, for us, so that we never had money, because it was illegal for any student in Cuba to work and to earn any money. So basically, we were really relying upon all the food that the school was giving us.

AAJ: I've heard stories of limited access to tape players and having to get up at certain times of the night to listen to music, just because you had the opportunity. Since you had limited access to listen, who were some of the American jazz artists that you were able to check out who influenced your early concept of jazz?

EV: Well, our first love affair was Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea. We were so in love with them. We were always asking who's music you felt more comfortable with—was it Herbie Hancock's music or Chick Corea's kind of Spanish touch? We really wanted the CDs that really impacted us, and I say us, because there was a group of musicians that were impacted by the music. For us, that was impressive.

We also really got into George Benson, we really loved Miles, and later on, we started getting into Branford Marsalis. We were more into the advanced kind of jazz thing, because for some reason, that was what we were getting. Because we didn't have a radio station, or a magazine that talks about jazz. Basically what we got was whatever any famous musician from Cuba was bringing into the island. And then the access to a tape player, and even just tapes was very limited. Sometimes when I teach, my students say, oh, it's too much, or whatever, and I say, "You have no idea how blessed you are with all these possibilities. My mother and father used to give me 45 Cuban pesos to live for a month or 45 days. When I went to school, they were selling tapes at 15 pesos each! And then usually you have two tapes that you wanted to record. And you were like, 'Oh my god, well, OK, I'll give you thirty pesos. Give me two blank tapes so I can tape some of my favorite music.'"

And then, once again, you would keep making choices between eating or music. Because once you do that, once you have only 15 pesos, there nothing you can do except maybe for five pesos get like three or four ice cream scoops. But you know what, in a sense, making those choices, for some reason helped us develop a sense of community. All these people would benefit from me having those tapes. We would share the tape player, we would share the tapes, and everybody was listening to everybody else's music. Then if somebody was going to the ice cream place, they would maybe say, "OK, don't worry about it, I'll treat you for that." We kind of developed that sense of community; friends helping each other out. Those are moments in life that you basically laugh about, and you remember with a tremendous amount of joy.

And that's how we were basically raised in the music environment in terms of making choices, trying to learn jazz in particular. Because of course, we were getting almost the best classical education that you could ever get. For example when I went to the University, a lot of my teachers were Russian. They would speak to us in Russian and we'd have a translator telling us what he was saying. Even on the tests, every single thing was in Russian. I mean, I remember going to this classroom and this was the most stressful part for us; he would have soooo much information for us that you would leave the classroom sore—your hands would be sore. Because he would be talking on and on and then stop, and then the translator would go on for awhile and you would have to interrupt just to question the translator, and then the translator would ask the question to the guy. Back and forth. It was very intense, and most of the classes were like this for two hours.

My composition teachers were some of the greatest, because they were from the same generation as Leo Brower, and the same generation when they were really pushing to create their own identity in classical Cuban music. Some composers respected the Lecuona style. Lecuona is our biggest composer in the twentieth century. But some other musicians were trying to go more towards the experimental. They created the workshop of experimental music—Grupo de Experimentación Sonora. All these people were my teachers. At the same time I was learning all these things, I was going to festivals of really contemporary music, where you have to create your own sound from nothing. They would give you a keyboard and then they teach you to manipulate sounds and how to create you own thing. And then after you create your own sound, you have to write a piece and use magnetic tapes, and then they would have a festival. Our education at that point was really intense. Oh yeah, and in the meantime, we were trying to learn some jazz.

AAJ: You put together a jazz group, Ferjomesis—what type of material were you playing? Could you tell me a little bit about that group?

EV: Yeah, we were doing original music. At that point, we were doing a lot of fusion. Like Michael Brecker, he was another guy that impacted us. Michael Brecker and Randy Brecker—that kind of sound. Mike Manieri, the electric vibraphone; we used to really love that sound of fusion. In our group we used to also have a vibraphonist and used to do all kinds of interesting things. And I have to say I'm surprised because still I hear news from friends when I go to Cuba who say, "We saw you guys when you were with Ferjomesis at a festival." They are still playing those tapes, even nowadays from those years. They remember that we worked so hard, because that was the only festival that was in Cuba. So basically, we would work all year just to prepare for that festival.

Elio VillafrancaAAJ: Was that the Jazz Plaza Festival?

EV: Yes. Before they made it so that everybody could come here and present their thing, it was very competitive. You had to go and compete with all the national groups, regardless. We never knew who we were going to be competing against. It could have been professional groups that had already been on the street as professional musicians. We were all students, but we were offering a different sound from what everybody else was offering. And we got to be popular in that sense. A lot of people used to come to our shows, and even Gonzalo sometimes would come to our shows, and would sit with us, and play with us. That group was very, very good. And most of the musicians that were in that group are now professional musicians, doing very well in music. But they all went completely different ways.

AAJ: You eventually got the gig with Carlos Varela, which you mentioned. How did you get into that group and was the rock influence something that you had studied or were interested in at that point?

EV: I got into that group, because two of my friends who were at school were in it too. Carlos was looking for a pianist and they recommended me. In Cuba, when you do that, you never get paid for those services, because, you know in Cuba once again, if you are a student, you are not supposed to get paid. And every single payment system comes through the government. It's not like you can go to a club and maybe do a gig and they will pay you under the table. No, because every single bit of money that goes out is government money. So basically, you don't get paid. But it was fun and they described it to me like, "This guy can really sing and the songs are very interesting." The way we looked at it, the songs were harmonically interesting to us, which made us want to play with him. It was kind of like folk/rock, which in Cuba at that point was a thing that was not really very popular, in terms of a government thing. The government didn't like that kind of music, because it represented the enemy as they say. To them it represented the United States.

So I started rehearsing with them and really enjoying the group, and we were pulling all the repertoire together. I remember, we didn't even have a rehearsal space, so on the weekends I had to organize to go to the school and rehearse there. And the rehearsals were just me on the piano, Carlos on the guitar, and then our drummer would just have a piece of wood or something so he could bang on top of it just to create a rhythm. And a trumpet player and a saxophonist; it was very acoustic. And we had a keyboard player and he would come and just listen, watch and take notes—that's how our rehearsals went.

At the same time, he was singing just with guitar around town, because he was a professional already. And his songs were so controversial, and he got so popular, that finally, they gave us a chance to do a concert for the first time ever. And of course, we never had any formal rehearsal space; we'd only been rehearsing the way I described. They said, "Syntesis is playing that day, and we're going to allow you to play three numbers that day and that's it." So we went there, and rehearsed the three songs that we were going to do. Everybody knew that we were going to do that—the theater was so packed that you couldn't even imagine. And then, what happened was that already the word was out on the street that this group is crazy, and they're talking about all these crazy political things. So everybody shows up, we start singing the songs.

There were so many policemen in the audience, almost half of the audience was policemen. And then tension was rising, rising, rising. To the point that one of the songs that we used to sing was misinterpreted by the police, and then they tried to stop the group from playing and then people got really angry. And then the whole thing ended with police hitting people, breaking glass, breaking heads. There were arrests, and the whole thing ended. The whole theater was destroyed. And then we were asked to go the next day to an audition with the government where the singer had to go song by song and defend them, just to prove that he wasn't going to say anything against the country or the government. And then they said, you are banned from playing in Cuba for a year. Because people were like completely crazy about the group, a little too crazy.

So we said fine, we're not going to play for a year. But that was even worse, because then for a year, people were like wondering about the group. So finally when we arranged to do a solo performance—now imagine, for a year all this curiosity that everybody had rises up, and when we did the concert, it was even crazier. I mean, it was amazing. I can't remember ever experiencing that—going to the stage and a mass of people are running to the stage just like crazy. And then we had to run from the stage because people were out of control again, I mean, it was amazing. And then from that point on, we were a really established group. No one was getting paid—I wasn't getting paid; but we could play at the Karl Marx theater and bring up like 7,000 people to listen to our group. But I wasn't getting a dime out of that. My only gratitude was just to know that people liked my arrangements of a song—because I was doing arrangements for the group, of Carlos' song. Just to know that people were enjoying the way that we were arranging the music was our payment at that point.

AAJ: Then you went to the University of Arts to teach at that point, is that right?

EV: Yeah, because there was a time that I was at the University that they developed these courses—there was an interest from Europeans to come to Cuba and learn Cuban jazz. So I started to do those courses, and that was really interesting to me. There were the finest musicians in Cuba teaching those courses, and I was lucky that I was picked to also be part of that group. Chucho Valdes was teaching the piano course, Cesar "Pupi" Pedroso from Los Van Van was teaching a course, I was as well, and there were a few other select piano players teaching. As for percussion, Changuito was teaching a course, Eladio, Pancho Terry also.

It was very selective for each kind of instrument. And then, those courses were paid in dollars, which was very nice for me, because I was a student. But since those courses were not dealing with school time, from July to August, I would stay in Havana instead of going back home to teach these courses with all those guys. Interestingly that was the first time that we were introduced to the 2-3, 3-2 clave concept from America. We never thought that way about clave. Because, the way we see clave, it's more of a contextual thing. If you tell me this song that we're going to do is a son montuno, we automatically know how the clave should be in the son montuno. If you tell me the song is a rumba feel, we automatically know how the clave is supposed to feel in the rumba feel. Or maybe 6/8...depending on the situation, and even if you don't describe it and it sounds like a son montuno to us, we will take you there.

But when we started doing those courses, and people from San Francisco mostly started asking like, so is this 3-2 or 2-3? We were like, what is that? What is 2-3, 3-2? We had no idea! I remember coming out and Changuito would be there, because he was teaching right next to my classroom. Changuito would come out and we would say, "Did you know that? 2-3, 3-2 what was that?" Everybody was asking, "What are they talking about?!? Oh my god..." we had no idea, and finally they explained to us, well the two side is like this and the three side is like this. Oh, OK, then we got into it. But that was the first time that we heard about it, in those courses.

Elio VillafrancaAAJ: So did you jump from that school in Havana to Philadelphia? How did you make that move?

EV: From those courses, I met this group of people from Philadelphia who were also learning in those courses. I met them and they invited me to come to Philadelphia to teach in a school, called AMLA—Associacion de Musicos Latino-Americanos. And they invited me to come and to teach all their courses. That's how I got into teaching here, and I also got involved with a woman and we got married while I was in Cuba, which made it also possible for me to come to the States.

AAJ: What was the biggest change that you experienced when you moved to Philadelphia? You obviously had more access to jazz musicians, performances, and recordings. What was the biggest change in your musical concept?

EV: Well, the biggest change was actually the size of the audience. I was coming from a situation, playing with Carlos, where we used to play in stadiums. I remember being in Columbia and playing alongside Pink Floyd and all these big bands. And for me, I was coming here thinking, "I really love jazz." And then I go to a jazz club and only play for 20 or 30 people. It was very shocking to me. You know, it's funny because that's when we start to understand that jazz is something so personal and so special.

In this country it's not necessarily what you would consider to be popular music. It's not like you go to a stadium and people just flock to go see you. It's very unique in that sense; it touches people in a very specific and a special way. That was one challenge for me, getting used to that and not thinking that I didn't make the wrong move. Because when you're coming from a country that is much smaller than this country and way less developed than this country, you're thinking that you're going to come to this country and everything is going to be better. But then when you play, you wonder...where did all the people go? You're coming from a country that's under developed, but when you play, you have 600 or 700 people come to see you. It's a whole different thing. It brings you down a little bit.

Also, when I was in Cuba, I thought that I understood what jazz was. I thought, "Oh yeah, cool, I'm studying music all the time, I can understand anything. You know, I can understand jazz and I used play in those jazz festivals in Cuba." But when I was in Philadelphia, I hired a piano tuner to tune my piano. I remember he played something and I wondered "what is that!?" I just fell in love with whatever he played—and I couldn't play it! That was the whole thing. And all he did was play a few blues chords and I couldn't understand how it sounded so great. So I thought, he must be a pianist, he has to be a great pianist that happens to be tuning my piano right now. And then I asked him and he said, "No, I don't play the piano. I basically tune the piano and just play these chords to make sure that the piano sounds good." And then I understood something about what jazz is. Just as we have Cuban music in our blood, and can make rhythms out of anything, and we can have a really deep understanding of this complex polyrhythmic thing, and all of that.

Jazz is the same thing for the people who live here. The blues is in their blood, and it is something that is cultural. It's not just music where you learn a few things and that is it. It's something that you have to really dig in and begin to understand. On the same level, I would advise anyone that wants to learn Afro-Cuban music to dig in. So that made me think I needed to do something about it. I started getting together with all the pianists who were teaching me to get a better understanding of what jazz was. One of the first people that I started taking lessons with was Ed Simon. I went to him and he said, "Oh, you want to learn jazz, well OK," and we started working on Charlie Parker. He took me really down there to get the language and really put me onto the right path.

AAJ: Did you get to play with the whole Simon family, such as Marlon?

EV: Yeah, I used to have a group, because when I did my debut in Philadelphia, I didn't know who to call, because I didn't know anyone at that point. And then the people from AMLA said, well, we know Marlon Simon and also we know Pablo Batista, the conga player. I formed a group with them. The bassist was a British guy, Howard Bridge. I think he is in New York now. I only saw him once after that. I would use Terrell Stafford on trumpet and Ralph Bowen on saxophone. I mean, that band was really good, and we were doing really, really well. And then I was playing at a festival, leading that band, and I met Danilo Perez when he was playing with Avishai Cohen. Danilo had heard of me because my bassist used to be his student at Berklee. We had done a quick recording just to kind of pass around and he had sent it to Danilo.

Then when I went to the festival, I went into the wrong tent—I went into Danilo's place. I was just resting there and then Danilo came in. And I was like "Hey—I know who you are." And then we started talking, and we really developed a nice friendship from there. And Danilo has also been very influential in my music. Every time he used to come to Philadelphia, we used to go out; we'd hang out and listen to music. He used to even play for me when he was in the process of doing a recording. He would play the demos for me and ask me what I thought. And he used to talk to me a lot about music. Because he's such an educated guy, every time we were together, there was always something for me to learn from him. And that's how I've been basically forming my jazz education. And then there was another pianist in Philadelphia who I used to barter with—because he used to say, I wouldn't consider this a class, I want to trade, because he wanted to learn something from me as well. Tom Lauten is great pianist who teaches at Temple University and we used to get together and he would teach me. And also Farrid Barron, who used to play with Wynton Marsalis. He's a guy who used to live in Philadelphia and I also used to go to his house and we used to share. It's just things like that.

AAJ: You were there in Philadelphia, and then you moved to New York. When was that and what inspired that change?

EV: Well, that was around six or seven years ago. What inspired that move was partially my wife. I remarried and at that time we were living together. She was going to graduate school to do her Ph.D. in New York. Then we had to make a decision—do we stay in Philadelphia or do we go to New York? So I think that this was the place to come. You know, you have to understand that when I came from Cuba, there were already other people asking me to come here. Like Oscar Hernandez, the pianist. Every time he would come to Philadelphia, he would be like, "Man, what are you doing here? You have to come to New York—that's the place where you should come to play."

Elio Villafranca

But I was not ready emotionally or economically to make another move after coming from Cuba. I mean, a move from Cuba to the States was a really big move. It's like a huge move and then you have to overcome all these emotional things; it takes a long time for you to start feeling at home again. And while I was in Philadelphia, I was feeling at home. I was feeling like this is home now, this is good. It's a long process of negotiation. Because at the same time, you keep thinking back to Cuba, and you keep comparing. Was I really smart doing this move, or would I have felt better staying in Cuba? Because I never left Cuba for political reasons, so I never had a really strong issue. The reason why I left Cuba was because there was nothing for me to do over there.

I came to New York for almost the same reason. I really did everything in Philadelphia. I played everywhere that you can think there; I'd done everything. But Philadelphia for some reason is the kind of place where you play and do these interesting projects and then all of a sudden nobody knows about you except your locals from Philadelphia. Because I would come to New York and nobody knew my name at all. But meanwhile, I'd been in Philadelphia playing with everybody—playing alongside Celia Cruz, playing with Bobby Sanabria sometimes at some events, playing with my own group, and just playing with a lot of different people. But when I would come to visit New York, nobody would know my name.

And then I decided that it was time for me to make a move, for people to know who I am and just to develop. To get to that place where I can continue on to conquer things. Because that was the challenge, that was my next challenge. To come to New York and work at the Blue Note and get all these clubs going on and get to know new musicians...to go even further with jazz. And it's going well, because since then I have had the opportunity to work with Pat Martino and Eric (Alexander) and Jon Faddis and Wynton Marsalis; I've been able to do all these things. If I had been in Philadelphia, I would not have been able to do a lot of those things. I'm really happy that I made that move.

AAJ: In both Philadelphia and New York, did you ever deal with issues of expectations—people assumed that since you were a Cuban jazz artist that you'd be playing Tito Puente style or like Poncho Sanchez—very 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 Cuba—I'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 composition—the 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?

Elio VillafrancaEV: 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.

AAJ: Your recent album, The Source In Between, there were about four or five years in between albums and there's a big stylistic change on this album. It's much more focused on swing and has a much more modern jazz compositional approach. What inspired you to move in that direction?

EV: Well after the Encantations CD, I started working with Pat Martino. I was touring with him with Marc Egan on bass and Eric Alexander on sax—that's how I met Eric. And then, you know, working with Pat is kind of like a tough seat. Pat's compositions are challenging in his own "Pat" way. Very challenging, and they make you think; make you consider music in a different way. Not only by playing, but always when we finished a show, we'd sit down at the hotel. And, I don't know, it could be in Belgium or whatever, in Italy. We'd sit down in the lobby and then Pat would launch into talking to us and telling us about what his musical approach is, or what his experience was, painting diagrams and it's very interesting. We're just sitting around trying to understand his head.

And then at the same time, I started listening more and more to Ornette Coleman. I got his whole compilation, and I started to listen. And not only listen, but I started to read the things that he would say, and there was something that really, really impressed me about his approach. He said that he was more interested in hearing everybody's independent voice than making all his music even. He didn't say it specifically in those words, but basically, that's what he was trying to say. If you have a quintet with two horns, they're trying to match the melody and make it sound like one voice. But he had completely the opposite philosophy. He thought, when I give you the melody, I want you to play the it the way that you play it. And I want the other instruments to play the melody the way that they play it.

I don't want you to sound like me, I want you to sound like you. And in terms of music, he wasn't really so much caught up into perfection in that way. He always wanted to be really spontaneous, he wanted to be really organic—what you play is what you play. And I really like that approach, especially his harmonic approach and everything.

I was also really thinking, the whole thing about Latin jazz, jazz, and all that—I always felt that I could feel the music both ways. Take for example, "Cacique," from my first CD. You've got all those batas behind it. But if you eliminate the bata, it's like a jazz feel type of situation.

And that's how I usually play around with music, and that's how I started to really write the album. Between the concepts of letting everybody just play the music and just feel the music in whatever way they wanted to feel it and not to write a lot of complicated parts. Write the parts more in a way that people could have their own way of playing it. And also at the same time, create a music that's in my head, I could feel it both ways. The whole entire album, I could do a completely different version—a straight ahead Latin jazz version with the conga and everybody else. And I could do that with most of the music in the album, and I would feel very comfortable. There's nothing that I would have to change. I wouldn't need to change the phrasing from the melody, I wouldn't need to change anything, I'd just do it. And that's why I did two takes of "The Source In Between," and I put the percussion on the second track, to kind of make people think that, oh yeah, wow, this could be also heard this way.

AAJ: I thought that was a really interesting contrast. You got such as perfect title for that—"The Source In Between"—where the music does kind of flow between and the way that it's made clear between the two tracks is incredible. Another track that I saw balancing these two worlds is the "Oddua Suite," because I really hear that distinct connection to a Coltrane spirituality, and at the same time, you're referencing Santeria in there. Is there a background behind that piece?

EV: The background behind that piece is exactly that. There was a time that I wanted to do an album of solely Afro-Cuban pieces like that and just put them into jazz. And I started doing that—I started writing a few pieces, but somewhere down the line I abandoned that. Not that I abandoned that concept, but I didn't really finish. But I always wanted to do a whole album that is based on Afro-Cuban music, but transfer those melodies into jazz. Actually, I did a show in Philadelphia that was called Dahomenian Kututo Suite—that was one of the concerts that I played at The Painted Bride where there was a really big ensemble.

I played all music from Arara but put it into jazz; you know, with guitar, trumpet, sax, percussion, and drums, and everything. It was mostly done in Cuban jazz style. I changed the harmonies of the songs, I kind of completely changed everything, but using the same concept of the Arara music. I always have been interested in doing that, because that's the way that I hear the music. I don't hear it one way or another, I kind of hear it both ways. And you know, Cuban music and jazz have a very close relationship. Because, when you hear jazz, you basically hear the subdivision of the three—the 6/8 subdivision type. Sometimes we say like, "Oh yeah, jazz, it has a background in African music." But a lot of people never really think how that connection works. You know, and they just see it as a separate thing. Everybody knows that it's connected, but they just refer to it as that. In terms of music, a lot of people don't really know why this is connected to that, and they don't realize it's because of the way that it feels, you know. It has the same feeling.

AAJ: It seems like there's another track where you explore that—"The Resurrection of the Incapacitated." I'm not actually sure if you're taking an actual song, but it seems like you're kind of describing a process from the Santeria tradition, from the Babalu Aye ceremony.

Elio VillafrancaEV: Exactly, yeah. And the melody is actually like an Ornette Coleman type of melody. The idea of the piece is based on the whole concept and the dance or ritual process in Babalu Aye's performance. How he will start at a place where he can hardly walk, and struggle. And then how he resuscitates, and then he does this amazing, really furious dance. Then he comes back again because it's become kind of hard for him to walk and he's going to the floor. So it has that kind of spiritual aspect.

Let me tell you about one of my latest projects that people probably don't know about, but maybe they will soon. I did this collaboration earlier this year. I was commissioned to do a piece for mariachi and orchestra. It was probably a six month process of getting all those things done for them. The piece was premiered in Houston, Texas and it was choreographed by this really great dance company called the Dallas Black Dance Theater. It was a composition integrating a traditional mariachi group with a classical orchestra. There were 20 or so musicians on stage. And I not only composed the piece, but I conducted it. Because when I was studying in school, I had to do conducting for a year. I had never done anything in front of anybody since I graduated from school, so this was my debut as a conductor.

AAJ: Wow, is there going to be a recording of that?

EV: Yeah, right now the recording, is only like 12 minutes long because that was the request. Since there was a dance group involved, they wanted to have only 12 minutes of music so they could choreograph, otherwise it would be too much. But I'm in the process of applying for grants to do a whole full concert for mariachi ensemble and orchestra.

AAJ: Another track on your album that stood out to me was "Three Plus One," and when I listened to that, I just closed my eyes and you almost hear Monk jumping out on that. One of the funny things that I've heard before is how Monk's music is so grounded in clave, and you can make that transition naturally. Was that something that you heard?

EV: Yeah, it really has some Monk influence, but once again I could put the clave into that. You know, it's funny because if I do it...for example, I could do that piece in rumba and have basically the same melody [sings melody while clapping rumba clave]. You know, to me, it's not just one direction—when I do melodies, it's fun to find a line between. It could be swing or it could be that way. Because I never know, right now. If somebody says to me, "I want a Latin jazz group," then it's like, OK, if I can schedule The Source In Between, then let's do it. I wanted to be able to do that. I wanted to be flexible, where my music could be interpreted in different ways.

AAJ: I just had one more question for you. One of the things that made me think of this—Dafnis Prieto plays on both of your albums and has lots of great albums of his own; a beautiful composer in his own right. And I'm seeing in the bigger Latin jazz world, there's a new generation of Cuban musicians that don't necessarily need their identity defined by son and rumba, danzon. It's more about expressing themselves through composition. I see Dafnis, you, Yosvany Terry, Francisco Mela, this whole group coming out—do you have any thoughts on that direction? Is it just kind of a natural progression?

EV: I think it is a natural progression. We were in Cuba at the same time, we were really experimenting in music, allowing ourselves to breathe through American influences—at a time in Cuba where those kinds of thoughts were not particularly welcome, you know? You had to really go outside the margin to find different sources where you would be exposed to that kind of music. And to allow for the influence to come to you.

But the good thing about our generation, separate from all the other generations—our generation has always been really open. Really, really, really open to American jazz, and we've been embracing American jazz since we were in school. Different from previous generations, and even different from the generation that is in Cuba right now. There are a lot of fine musicians over there now, but I think in a way, they are going back again to the same Latin jazz. Not all of them, but a lot of them are going back to the same Chucho approach in Latin music and stuff like that.

But, yeah, those names that you mentioned, we're all friends, we all share the same things, we all get together, we all discuss music. And it's easy to work with them. I've worked with Mela many times; I've toured with Mela, he's been in my band. Dafnis and I as you know just did a really great concert together at Jazz at Lincoln Center with Matt Brewer and another saxophonist. But we have a really nice history of collaboration. And also, Terry and his brother Yunior. It has been very interesting. And you're right, it's a generation of Cuban musicians who are I think creating their own path in their own way.

Selected Discography

Elio Villafranca, The Source In Between (Ceiba Tree, 2008)

Andrea Brachfeld, Into The World: A Musical Offering (Shaneye, 2008)

Jeff Niess, Evolution (Mambo Maniacs, 2004)

Elio Villafranca, Incantations/Encantaciones (Universal Latino, 2003)

Pablo Batista, Ancestral Call (DBK, 1999)

Raul Paz, Imaginate (RMM, 1998)

Carlos Varela, Como Los Peces (RCA International, 1994)

Carlos Varela, Monedas Al Aire (Qbadisc, 1994)

Photo Credits
Second From Bottom: Christine Darch
All Other Photos: Courtesy of Elio Villafranca



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