By Eugene Holley Jr.
Pianist/composer Elio Villafranca is the latest in a decades-long line of Cuban musicians who has integrated African, European and Pan-American musical concepts. His two-disc set is a compelling and complex dedication to Cinque, the Sierra Leonean who led a bloody revolt aboard the Cuban-bound, slave ship Amistad in 1839 and later was freed by John Quincy Adams.
The ensemble here primarily consists of Villafranca’s group, The Jass Syncopaters. With a pianistic style that echoes Duke Ellington and McCoy Tyner, the bandleader narrates Cinque’s story with references to the Haitian Revolution and the free Maroon colonies of runaway slaves.
Pianist Vijay Iyer, singer-songwriter Cécile McLorin Salvant, flutist Nicole Mitchell, trumpeter Amir ElSaffar, orchestra leader Maria Schneider and hip-hop artist Kendrick Lamar are among the talented performers who topped multiple categories in the 66th Annual DownBeat International Critics Poll.
By John Ephland
For five days in early May, Cuban pianist/composer Elio Villafranca set up shop at Systems Two, the state-of-the-art recording studio in Brooklyn, to record his sixth album, Cinqué (ArtistShare). The program, which includes five movements, contains music he had performed onstage at Jazz at Lincoln Center in 2015.
The disc’s title refers to Joseph Cinqué (1814–’79), the West African man who led a revolt aboard the ship La Amistad, which was transporting Cinqué and others who had been captured as part of the slave trade.
“Cinqué showcases,” Villafranca said, “the cultural diversity of the five Caribbean islands of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica, while simultaneously highlighting the African traditions woven into the fabric of each of these nations.”
By Raul da Gama
It is three days before my scheduled interview with the musician and pianist Elio Villafranca. I have long been fascinated by his ferocious talent—indeed his genius—not only as a pianist, but also for the depth of his musicianship. Mr. Villafranca is subsumed by the Afro-Caribbean tradition. His knowledge and love for the music of his ancestors has led him to acquire a deep knowledge of the history not only of Cuban music, but also of its African roots as well. His music has been informed by a unique perspective of the tradition to which he is so inextricably linked. He performs like a man possessed. His music bristles with genius. He continuously takes the road less travelled.
By Shaun Brady
Born in Cuba and classically trained, pianist Elio Villafranca has long offered a unique take on Latin jazz, foregoing the reliance on percussion pyrotechnics for a more fully integrated blend of his varied interests. That’s not to say that he can’t bring the fire when it’s called for, as he does on “Mambo Vivo,” a lively tribute to Pérez Prado on his new CD, which was recorded live in 2012 at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola.
But more often he combines elements of jazz and Afro-Caribbean music with the architectural insight born of his classical training, which leads to more intriguing combinations and juxtapositions. On Caribbean Tinge, Villafranca imports rhythms from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba and filters them through three different permutations of his Jass Syncopators ensemble. That band brings stellar jazz players together with a trio of percussionists to fuse passion with complexity.
By Danilo Navas
Editor Danilo Navas and New York Co-Editor Tomas Peña Discuss Elio Villafranca and The Jass Syncopators: Caribbean Tinge Live at Dizzy’s (Motema Music)
TP: I attended the performance at Dizzy’s (Jazz at Lincoln Center, New York). You viewed it via live-stream in Toronto, Canada. How was it on your end?
DN: Technically, the sound was great. Visually, a single camera was used, as opposed to the Nuevo Jazz Latino webcast, where several cameras were used. During the first set the lighting was a bit dark, probably because the backdrop is the New York City skyline and it was still daylight. The lighting for the second set was much better.
If you’ve never been to Dizzy’s, it has been described as “the best jazz room in the city.” The acoustics are superb and it offers a panoramic view of the New York City skyline. On the evening I attended the music and the vibe could not have been better.
By Laurence A. Borden
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.
Interview with Spud Too Tight
Cuban Jazz Pianist/Composer/Producer Elio Villafranca makes his 2nd appearance on The Producer's Corner with Spud Too Tight to discuss his 2010 GRAMMY nomination for Best Latin Jazz Album of the Year in the 2010 Latin Grammy Awards in Chembo Corniel's Album Things I wanted to Do, in which Mr. Villafranca collaborated as pianist and co-producer. Also, he is the pianist in the recently released album by John Santos y El Coro Folklorico Kindembo, La Guerra No, which was also nominated for Best Traditional World Music Album in the 2010 Latin Grammy Awards."
Since the release of The Source In Between, Elio Villafranca once again demonstrates why he’s at the forefront of the generation of remarkable Cuban pianists, composers and bandleaders that for several years has been making major creative contributions to the international development of modern jazz.
By Marcia Hillman
Cuban pianist Elio Villafranca has found the way to celebrate both his Latin jazz roots and straight-ahead jazz influences on The Source In Between. Along with tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander, drummer Dafnis Prieto, bassist Jeff Carney and also featuring saxophonist Yosvany Terry, hand percussionist Arturo Stable and drummer Ferenc Nemeth on selected tracks, Villafranca wends his way through a selection of original compositions that bespeak of both the Latin and jazz genres.
Ordinarily a CD with only original compositions can be problematic because there is no base from which to interpret, but Villafranca is an accomplished pianist who displays an ability to combine the emotional values of conventional Latin pianism with some of the cerebral ones of bop, post-bop and free jazz, finding a new territory in which to inhabit.