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Elio Villafranca: The Source In Between

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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.
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