Publisher Profile

An Interview With Pianist/Composer Elio Villafranca

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Elio Villafranca is a gifted modern day musician traversing in both jazz and classical terrains. Born in a little town called San Luis, Cuba, in the western province of Pinar del Rio, Elio is the recipient of numerous industry accolades and awards, including one of the 50 best jazz albums of the year by JazzTimes in 2003, the pianist of the year by The Jazz Corner in 2008, the BMI Jazz Guaranty Award in 2008, the first NFA/Heineken Green Ribbon Master Artist Music Grant in the same year, and last but certainly not least, a 2010 Grammy “Best Traditional World Music Album” Award nomination for his performance composition and coproduction in his album, The Source In Between. He is the forerunner in today’s Cuban Jazz scene.

This interview by Dagogo Executive Editor Laurence Borden reveals Elio’s early jazz influence, the music scene indigenous to Cuba, what music playing means to him, what coming to America means to him, and his new project that the jazz world is anticipating. – Publisher

“The most important difference between Cuban and American Jazz
is in the rhythm…”

LB: Elio, it is a privilege to welcome you to Dagogo. Please share with us your early exposure to music – both jazz and classical – and how you became a musician.

EV: I was born in Cuba, in a little town called San Luis, located in the western province of Pinar del Rio. My earliest memory of musical training was in the streets of my hometown, where I witnessed rehearsals and performances of San Luis’ folkloric ensemble of Tambor Yuka. The Tambor Yuka is one of three important variations of Congolese music in Cuba (along with Palo and Makuta). The town’s cultural house, or Casa de Cultura, was next door to my home. Looking over the wall that divided my patio from the cultural center, I could watch the group rehearsals which were my earliest contact with the Afro Cuban music of my roots. At the age of 11 I joined an art program at the Casa de Cultura where I received painting and guitar lessons. Shortly after that I went to a Vocational Music School in Pinar del Rio, the capital of that province, where I took three years of full musical training with a specialization in classical percussion. I continued that specialization in Havana for four more years at the Escuela Nacional de Arte (E.N.A.). Although I had already been studying piano for three years, it was at the E.N.A that my love for jazz and the piano began. I then went to the Instituto Superior de Arte (I.S.A.) to pursue my higher education in music. At the I.S.A., while I was directing my own jazz ensemble, I was intensively trained in classical percussion, composition, and piano. I graduated with a dual degree, equivalent to a dual Master’s degree, in Classical Percussion and Classical Composition.

LB:Could you tell us bit about Cuban jazz – how it began, some of its early pioneers, and how it is distinguished from American jazz.

EV: Cuban music has always been influenced by jazz. Improvisation, which is jazz’s strongest element, has long been present in most genres within the Populas Cuban music palette – Son, Danzon, Guarachas, Mambos, Cha cha cha etc. – but the period most people recognize as the beginning of the development of Latin Jazz in Cuba was the 1950s. During this time pianists such as Frank Emilio, Pedro Justiz, Lili Martinez, Bebo Valdez, Antonio Maria Romeu, and Julio Gutierrez, bassist Israel “Cachao” Lopez, trumpeter Chico O’Farrill, and percussionists Tata Güines and Gustavo Tamayo lead the Cuban descargas – jam sessions which could sometimes last all night – that were becoming popular on the Havana scene. However, as early as 1940 there were orchestras experimenting with jazz and the idea of improvisation. We can find this experimentation in Los Bomberos, a tune recorded in the early 40s by Cuba’s most popular big band at the time, Orquesta Riverside, as well as other pieces recorded by another legendary Cuban big band, Orquesta Casino de la Playa. In the 1960s that school was developed by still other musicians including pianists Emiliano Salvador, Pucho Lopez, Chucho Valdez and members of his group Irakere, including saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera, Carlos Averof, and trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, amongst others. Irakere was a new type of Cuban big band, rich in its use of harmonies, compositions, and instrumentation. The most important difference between Cuban and American Jazz is in the rhythm. The Cuban jazz is heavily influence by syncopated cells that characterize the music of the Caribbean, and then in the instrumentation.

LB: Like most musicians you began playing before you began composing. How did you make the transition to composition, and how much formal training in it did you receive? Last, how does your work as a composer influence your performance, and vice versa?

EV: Yes, I fell in love first with the piano, and then with composition, and it was at the Instituto Superior de Arte (I.S.A.) that I developed a serious interest in becoming a composer. My training in composition was totally in classical music, I never took a jazz or a popular music course. Such were not offered at the school, but that didn’t stop me from writing my first jazz composition and founding my first jazz ensemble named Ferjomesis, with which I played at the jazz festival in Havana, Jazz Plaza.

I don’t separate my performance from my work as a composer. I see it as one thing, especially when I’m playing jazz or free improvising. Here you have to be able to be creative instantly, compose something that is meaningful and perform those ideas while they are just forming in your head; there are no second chances to re-write it or to change it. You have to take what’s there and turn it in to art in the moment. And that is the most difficult form of composition. My five years of study in composition has certainly been most helpful.

LB: The transition from amateur musician to professional is often gradual. At what point did you decide that music would be your career, and how did that take shape in the Cuban jazz scene?

EV: In Cuba you have to make the decision to be a professional musician very early in your life. I was 11 years old when I first put a guitar in my hands and at moment, I felt that playing music was what I wanted to do for life. Of course I didn’t think of it as professional or amateur, I just wanted to play music, so I started to take lessons every day after school for 2 hours at a time. Then I went to the Escuela Vocacional de Arte, an Art Vocational School to continue and advance my over-all musical education.

LB: When did you move to the United States? Was the move motivated by political /economic considerations, or for your musical career? Or as I suspect, both?

EV: I came to the U.S. in 1995 and the reason was music. I love my country, but I needed to explore more about myself and find the love for the music I wanted to play. Being deeply interested in jazz, I knew that I needed to come to the United States if I wanted to study jazz seriously. In Cuba I only had the opportunity to play my music once a year, if I was lucky to be selected to play at the Jazz Plaza festival. I also wanted to experiment with different styles of music, not just Cuban, or sometime American.

The economy and politics also played a small roll my decision, but the main impetus was music.

LB: It has often been said music is the universal language, transcending borders. That said, I imagine there were (and are) cultural differences, and that the transition was not always easy. Please share your thoughts on this, and about the current state of Cuban Jazz in the United States.

EV: Cuban Jazz in the United States is divided in two groups. For many years it was defined by a group of both Cuban and not Cuban musicians, whose main focus was to revel in those elements in their music that identify it as Cuban. Those elements could be rhythms, instruments, traditions, styles, etc. Now, there is a strong presence of Cuban musicians experimenting with jazz. Their mission is to allow their musical background to be heard in the music they are composing, rather than basing their creation in any Cuban pattern or instrumentation. I wouldn’t say that they are not defining the Cuban Jazz in any way; rather I would say they are shaping the boundaries of jazz in general.

“I don’t separate my performance from my work as a composer…
especially when I’m playing jazz or free improvising…”

LB: Let’s turn now to you recordings. In 2003 you released the CD Incantations/Encantaciones, and in 2008 the source in between. But especially noteworthy is your work on the 2009 recording Things I Wanted To Do by percussionists Chembo Corniel, along with Grupo Chaworo, which was nominated in 2010 for a Grammy for Best Latin Jazz Album of the Year. Please tell us a bit more about that latter album – how you and Chembo met, your contributions to the CD, and how the nomination has affected your career.

EV: I collaborated on this CD in various ways. I was the composer for the tune Habana; I was the pianist for the entire album; and I also co-produced the project along with Chembo Corniel and Ivan Renta. Chembo and I have known one another for a long time. In 2003 he was in the ensemble that recorded my debut album Incamtation/Encantaciones, selected by Jazz Times magazine as one of the 50 best albums of that year. Since then we have been playing together in various settings. The Grammy nomination was important, but I don’t know if it has affected my career. I always pay attention to the quality of the music I’m putting out. I guess it feels nice to be recognized by the recording academy, even knowing that that their decisions are not always fair.

LB: Your latest recording, Dynamic Resolution, which came out February 26th, 2011, .represents a departure in a number of ways from your earlier recordings in ways that are likely to be of particular special interest to dagogo readers. First, the album was released only as an LP. Please tell us about your impressions of vinyl.

EV: Coming from Cuba, I never paid much attention to the way in which the music was delivered, I paid attention only to the music. Growing up I did hear some great music, especially classical Russian music, on old LPs, but perhaps I was too young to understand the value of that medium. But last year, before I was offered the opportunity to record my first LP, while I was on tour in Canada with Jane Bunnett, I got to listen to the vinyl version of Keith Jarret’s album Death and the Flower. That changed my musical world… it sounded simply perfect! I still can’t forget the sound of that recording; I can close my eyes and without any effort, be in the recording room with them. As you can imagine, it was quite an exciting moment when I was asked to record my first LP.

LB: Please tell us about the recording techniques that were used for Dynamic Resolution.

EV: The album was recorded using minimal micing. They only used one mic for the mono recording, and four for the stereo recording, but a considerable amount of time and thought were put into positioning the mics so as to optimize the sound capture. The LP album features only 4 tracks, and it is exclusively distributed by Acoustic Sounds ( The album was produced by Robin Wyatt and Jim Luce, was recorded in stereo and mono, by Duke Marcos Audio at Jerome L. Greene Performance Space in New York City, and mastered in Half Speed by Peter Ledermann. In my opinion, the sound on both the stereo and mono versions is a kind of changing musical experience in that I think it changes the listener. Ironically, it was also the fastest recording I have ever done, taking us only five hours to record the entire album. I have posted on my facebook fan page one track of this recording for those who’d like to sample the album:

I should also mention that because not everyone is able to listen to vinyl, a CD version of Dynamic Resolution will be released in July on the Motema Record Label. The CD will contain the complete recording session, not just the four tunes on the LPs.

LB: How did you become involved with Jim, Robin, Duke and Peter?

EV: I have been collaborating with Jim Luce on many different piano projects. He was always interested in having me record a piano solo album. Then one day I said, let’s do it! And that was the birth of Dynamic Resolution. I didn’t know the rest of the crew. I was introduced to them by Jim, the same day of the 5 hour recording session. But I really got to know them at Robin’s house when we were listening to the newly mastered album. We had ample time to discuss their artistry and mine.

LB: Please tell us about your accompanist on the album, Charles Flores, and how each of you contributed to the LP.

EV: Dynamic Resolution features just two musicians, Charles on bass and myself on piano. At first, this recording was going to be a piano solo thing, but then I decided to invite my friend Charles Flores, and I’m happy with that decision. All compositions, except the tune with the title Dynamic Resolution, are originals I wrote, created in the spirit of “jazz meets classical music” – my two strongest influences in music, after Cuban music, of course! Dynamic Resolution is a tune that was improvised on the spot the day of the recording.

Charles and I studied for many years at the same school, played together in a band outside of school, and we were and still are best friends. Here in the States we have toured and played together many times, but this is the first time we recorded together. I really like the way he plays so when the opportunity came to do this recording I called him and asked to participate. There was no rehearsal, nor preparation. He asked me about the music and I said I was writing it and that I would bring it the day of the recording. I intentionally didn’t want to be overly prepared for the recording. I wanted for us to be free that day, so I wrote some music that allowed us to be in the moment and play music the way we hear it, not the way we think it.

LB: Switching topics once again, are you involved with teaching music?

EV: Yes, teaching has always been part of me as a musicians. At the moment I’m an adjunct professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, where I coach the Latin Jazz music ensemble, and also provide one on one piano lessons.

LB: Last but certainly not least, please tell us your plans for the future.

EV: This year I will be recording my newest project – Elio Villafranca & The Jass Syncopaters, and I will be presenting this project at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola in New York City on September 5th and 6th. Joining me will be Billy Hart on drums, Sean Jones on trumpet, Greg Tardy on sax, and Gregg August on bass. The Jass Syncopaters will perform again at Dizzy’s on October 3rd, but this time the lineup will include Lewis Nash on drums, Terrell Stafford on trumpet, Greg Tardy on sax, and Gregg August on bass. I also have couple of other projects that I’m working on at the moment, including a duet near completion with a Cuban percussionist friend of mine, Arturo Stable. This project features just piano and a very interesting set of percussion instruments that Arturo puts together. It is a collaboration to which we both have contributed original compositions. I’m also producing an album for a fine singer from Panama, Giovana Robinson. I did all the musical arrangements on the album as well as contributing an original composition, though the majority of the songs are composed by Giovana. I’m also pianist/keyboardist on Charles Flores’ new album called Image of Graffiti, due to be released this year. Last but not least, I’m the pianist on Francisco Mela’s latest album which we recorded last year, and which is due to be released by High Note Record label later this year.

LB: On behalf of dagogo I would like to thank you for taking the time to speak with us. We wish you continued success, and look forward to enjoying your music for many years to come.

EV: Thank you Laurence, it has been my pleasure.

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