The Jazz.com Blog
September 15, 2008 · 0 comments
Elio Villafranca may not be a household name, but he is one of the more exciting musicians on the current jazz scene. This Cuban-born artist is a man of many surprises. Check out, for example, his painting to the right, a vivid watercolor from Villafranca's brush. But this artist paints his best known landscapes at the keyboard, where he cuts through the pigeonholing that tends to isolate Latin currents from the rest of the jazz world.
The range of his work is impressive. On a track such as “Calle Paula,” Villafranca can remind us of the classical work of composers such as Cuban Ernesto Lecuona, while in other settings this pianist seems closer to Monk than to mambo. Yet he can mix it up in a pure Latin vein with the best of them. In an age in which much of the most exciting music takes place in the interstices between the genres, it is refreshing to hear such determination to cut through arbitrary boundaries (often imposed by marketing considerations rather than artistic ones).
“When I moved to the U.S.,” Villafranca comments in his interview with Tomas Peña, “I was labeled as a 'Latin' jazz artist. At the time I was missing Cuba so much that even though I wanted to do something more creative there was bound to be a Cuban influence in my music. During that time I was listening to (pianist) Danilo Perez and lot of jazz and I kept thinking to myself, there has to be more to Latin jazz than just playing Tito Puente style.” Villafranca has achieved this something more. His ability to work the border territory between Latin and straight-ahead currents is especially impressive. “The whole Latin thing is very intricate,” Villafranca adds, “because you can compose Latin music in so many different ways.”
Readers are encouraged to check out this interview in its entirety. But here is an especially interesting passage, describing the challenges a Cuban musician of Villafranca's generation faced in learning the mainstream jazz tradition.
“I came from Pinar del Rio, so when I arrived in Havana my family was my only means of support. They gave me 45 Cuban pesos per month to survive. At the time the cost of a cassette tape was fifteen pesos! Sometimes I would go to Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s house or Chucho Valdes’s house to see what new music had come out and I would ask them if they could make me copies (sometimes they did and sometimes they didn’t). Once I had a copy in my possession I would listen to it over and over and transcribe the music. That’s how I learned all of the standards. . . .
“At the time there was only one cassette player in the entire school so we would compile a list of names and take turns listening to the music. If your turn came up at 3 AM, that’s when you listened to the music! Often times I would take the cassette player outside and connect it to an electrical outlet (in the street) and listen to the music over and over. Once you returned the cassette player there was no telling when you would get it back -- so I memorized the music. That’s how I learned jazz.”
For Tomas Peña's complete interview with Elio Villafranca, click here.
This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia.