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Elio Villafranca: The Source In Between

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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.
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