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Elio Villafranca: The Source In Between

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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
About Elio Villafranca
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