Q&A with Cuba-born pianist and composer Elio Villafranca - collaborated with leading jazz and Latin jazz artists

“Jazz has always been in the middle of racial political, spiritual, and socio-cultural struggles. Jazz in my opinion is the most inclusive form of music that exist. Jazz also offers a very unique and particular way of freedom of expression, which has been from it beginning a powerful tool for musicians all around the world to express their views about everything such as, social inequality, racial and gender discrimination, cultural differences, etc”.

Elio Villafranca: A Jazz Star Born

Elio Villafranca born in the Pinar del Río province of Cuba, Steinway Artist, two time Grammy Nominated, and 2014 Jazz at Lincoln Center Millennium Swing Award! recipient pianist and composer Elio Villafranca was classically trained in percussion, piano and composition at the Instituto Superior de Arte in Havana, Cuba. Since his arrival in the U.S. in mid-1995, Elio Villafranca is at the forefront of the latest generation of remarkable pianists, composers and bandleaders. In 2019 Downbeat Critic’s Poll, named him a Rising Stars pianist and included him in an article, among three other pianists, called “A New Golden Age of Pianists.” Elio was also the winner of the 2018 Downbeat Critic’s Poll, Rising Stars in the Keyboard Category. His concert Letters to Mother Africa was selected by NYC Jazz Record as Best Concerts in 2016. In 2017 Elio Villafranca received The Sunshine Award, founded in 1989 to recognize excellence in the performing arts, education, science and sports of the various Caribbean countries, South America, Centro America, and Africa. In 2015, Mr. Villafranca was among the 5 pianists handpicked by Chick Corea to perform at the first Chick Corea Jazz Festival, curated by Chick himself at JALC. Elio Villafranca’s new album Caribbean Tinge (Motema), received a 2014 Preis der Deutschen Schallplattenkritik Nomination by the German Records Critics Award, as well has been selected by JazzTimes and DownBeat magazines for a feature on their very competitive section Editor’s Pick. He also received a 2009 Grammy Nomination in the Best Latin Jazz Album of the Year category. In 2008 The Jazz Corner nominated Elio Villafranca as pianist of the year. That year, Mr. Villafranca was also honored by BMI with the BMI Jazz Guaranty Award and received the first NFA/Heineken Green Ribbon Master Artist Music Grant for the creation of his Concerto for Mariachi, for Afro-Cuban Percussion and Symphony Orchestra. Finally, his first album, Incantations/ Encantaciones, featuring Pat Martino, Terell Stafford, and Dafnis Prieto was ranked amongst the 50 best jazz albums of the year by JazzTimes magazine in 2003.

Over the years Elio Villafranca has recorded and performed nationally and internationally as a leader, featuring jazz master artists such as Pat Martino, Terell Stafford, Christian Mc. Bride, Billy Hart, Paquito D’Rivera, Eric Alexander, Lewis Nash, David Murray, and Wynton Marsalis among other. As a sideman Elio Villafranca has collaborated with leading jazz and Latin jazz artists including: Chick Corea, Jon Faddis, Billy Harper, Sonny Fortune, Giovanni Hidalgo, Miguel Zenón, and Johnny Pacheco among others. He is based in New York City and he is a faculty member of Temple University, Philadelphia, The Juilliard School of Music, New York University, and Manhattan School of Music in NYC. Elio’s double album “CINQUE” (Artistshare 2018), which gave Elio’s his second Grammy Nomination that year, is a five-movement suite inspired by the story of Joseph Cinque, who in 1839 led a successful revolt aboard the slave ship La Amistad, days after being sold and transported to a sugar plantation in Cuba. Elio’s most ambitious project today, showcases the cultural diversity of the five Caribbean islands of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Haiti, The Dominican Republic, and Jamaica; while simultaneously high-lighting the Congolese musical heritage woven into the fabric of each of these diverse nations, and yet unified via the forced migration of Africans to the Americas. This album features Wynton Marsalis, Vincent Herring, Greg Tardy, Lewis Nash, and Steve Turre among other great artists.

Interview by Michael Limnios               Photos © by Kasia Idzkowska

How has the Jazz and Latin music influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

The strongest contribution of jazz to humanity is freedom of expression and I think the strongest contribution of Latin music is diversity. When you put those two together will gives you a more wholistic way to understand people. We are diverse at nature and we express our self in a very unique ways, and this is what I strive to convey in my music. Jazz gave me the ability to see the world with a more critical eyes, see injustice, beauty, colors, people, joy and sorrow, politics, government, and other things, and gave me the tools to talk about them. Latin music gave me the understanding of how rich and unique Latin, as well as other cultures are. I truly believe that the more cultural knowledge we have, the better it is to treat people with respect. Respecting others fosters a more peaceful environment in the world. 

What touched (emotionally) you from the percussions and piano? How do you describe your sound?

I was drawn to rhythm very early in my childhood, specially the drums. I was born in a community rooted in a Congolese tradition known in Cuba as Tambor Yuka. This was a very closed community, ran mainly by family members. I was lucky to have been born near a Casa de Cultura where I could hear their drums from my house and see them playing, dancing, singing and playing those drums by claiming a wall that divided my house backyard from the patio inside the Casa de Cultura. My house was also near of director’s home of that Tambor Yuka group Puente, with whom I established a close relationship. This experience inspired me to audition at the elementary music school as a percussionist, despite my deep interest in the Spanish guitar, which I starting playing and receiving training at 7 years old.

I discovered the piano while at school and what touched me the most was its vast sonic and rhythmic possibilities. The piano has to me the perfect balance between melody, harmony, and rhythm. It is a transformative instrument with a triple personality. It has a melodic personality, a harmonic personality, and a rhythmic personality. At performances I like to travel through all of these possibilities. It is fun to see a piano sometimes as a drum, the same drum I saw played by the Congolese people from my hometown.

"The strongest contribution of jazz to humanity is freedom of expression and I think the strongest contribution of Latin music is diversity. When you put those two together will gives you a more wholistic way to understand people." (Elio Villafranca / Photo © by Kasia Idzkowska)

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, tours, and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

I have had many wonderful memories playing with and meeting incredible people. However, I would like to mention just a few that jumped out of my mind. My first memorable experience was touring with guitarist Pat Martino, which happened not long after my arrival in the US in 1995. Touring with Pat gave me the incredible opportunity to experience jazz at a very high level and perform near other great jazz musicians such as bassist Mark Egan and saxophonist Eric Alexander with whom I recorded an album later. I remember every night, after a gig, we would seat in the lobby of our hotel and listened to Pat talk about his experiences as a musician, health challenges, and his musical concept. I took every conversation as a lesson. Another memorable moment was playing piano duets with Chick Corea at his home in Florida. It is such an incredible and exhilarating experience seating next to one of your lifetime heroes and make music together.  Last year I got the opportunity to featured Wynton Marsalis in my 2018 Grammy Nominated album CINQUE. Been in the studio with him was for me a life changing experience. Wynton is also one of my heroes. I was always impressed by his writing, musicality and technical ability in the trumpet, but it was his humility, thoughtfulness, presence, and attention to details that impacted me the most. In the late 90s I got the opportunity to meet Dave Brubeck, another giant in jazz. However, meeting with him was different than the previous ways I mentioned. My second trip ever to the west coast was to perform at the Monterey Jazz Festival. At that time, I have formed a quartet called Dos Alas with two other wonderful west coast musicians John Santos and Orestes Vilató. We had really never rehearsed before, given that I was living in Philadelphia at the time and John and Orestes were in Oakland, CA. I was in charge of putting the music together to play at such prestige festival. The plan was for me to fly in the day of our performance and get together with the rest of the group two hours before our time to perform to put together the charts. I got a bit stressed after seeing how many people were attending the festival, all bands were well rehearsed, and there we were, still trying to find a room to play my charts. With less than an hour we managed to find a tent, right behind the main stage. I was facing away from the entrance of the tent, but I can still hear Michael Spiro’s band playing, but that didn't distract me from our mission. We were rushing to put all the tunes together, no solos, just the heads, when I realized that I needed to play at least one tune with them complete, solos included, to better feel their playing. We played the Cuban classic La Mulata Rumbera and when we finished, I heard someone clapping behind me and when I turned it was Dave Brubeck who had been there listening for some time. My take from that experience is “always perform your best, even when you think don’t have an audience.” You don’t know who may be listening!

"The piano has to me the perfect balance between melody, harmony, and rhythm. It is a transformative instrument with a triple personality. It has a melodic personality, a harmonic personality, and a rhythmic personality." (Elio Villafranca / Photo © by Kasia Idzkowska)

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

It was the night before my recording session at Systems Two Recording Studio for my album CINQUE, when I decided to go and see Chick Corea’s performance at Blue Note with his Electric Band. The concert impacted me so powerfully that when I was backstage with him, I shared that I thought I had made a mistake by coming to see him performed before my recording date. [Chick has see me performed before, in fact I met him because he came to Dizzy’s at Jazz at Lincoln Center to see my Jass Syncopators band performance one night.] I told him that after seeing him performed I wanted my band to sound as amazing as his band sounded that night, and that wish was giving me pressure. Then he replied to my comment... “Why would you have said that? That’s silly! I have seen you performed.” Then he concluded... “Just be present at the studio when you are playing your music and forget about everything else.“

I have always carried his advice every time I perform and shared it with students and others who may feel pressure at times like I did.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I think the one thing I missed the most about the music of the past is the musical statement that every artist would commit to present. Currently, it feels like many people sounds the same now and the need to be different or having a unique artistic statement is less and less prevalent. I also miss the quality of the sound. The way things are recorded this days and mass produced digitally had decay the experience we are having when we listen to music. I truly hope that people start paying more attention to the actual beauty of sound. There is a worry in all of us, jazz musicians, about the future of CD recordings. More and more we debate wether we need to print CDs or go only digital? I truly enjoy reading liner notes, historical facts about the project I'm listening to, and the artist's own prospective of his or her work. My fear is that that could disappear with the fast culture of consumerism we are in.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of African music with Jazz, Latin, Blues and beyond?

The drums and the general organization concept of three sonic environment best described in the tuning of the drums, high-mid-low, is the line that ties all of these musical forms, jazz, blues, Latin jazz, and beyond. This organizational system is known under the name of caja, mula, and cachímbo in many Afro-Cuban traditions, specifically Congolese. In jazz, for example, this general organization concept is manifested in the piano, bass, drums combination, which we call rhythm section. However, their functionality and sonic environment is the same as to that of the drums.

"I think the one thing I missed the most about the music of the past is the musical statement that every artist would commit to present. Currently, it feels like many people sounds the same now and the need to be different or having a unique artistic statement is less and less prevalent."

What is the impact of Jazz music to the racial, political, spiritual, and socio-cultural implications? 

Jazz has always been in the middle of racial political, spiritual, and socio-cultural struggles. Jazz in my opinion is the most inclusive form of music that exist. Jazz also offers a very unique and particular way of freedom of expression, which has been from it beginning a powerful tool for musicians all around the world to express their views about everything such as, social inequality, racial and gender discrimination, cultural differences, etc. This power of this freedom is in fact the reason why I, as well as many other musicians around the world, come to the US. I truly believe that jazz breaks all boundaries, brings people from all walks of life and country together, to make a better world.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

That is a difficult question to answer. I have always wanted to experience the mid-60s and early 70s in this country. That was a time when few musical generations of jazz met. Musicians from the bebop, hard bop, cool jazz, free jazz eras, and rock n' roll were coexisting, they were all performing in their own style, trying to make a statement. You have people like Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Monk, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln, Nina Simone, Bill Evens, Gil Evans, Freddie Hubbard, Jimi Hendrix, Jonny Pacheco and The Fania All Stars, Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers, etc, etc... So much music, so many great artists and everyone had their own sound, and the most beautiful part of it was that ever body was playing with everybody, regardless your ethnicity. It was very rich and prolific era in America. AND you also had a Civil Right movement! It was not a great time for people of color in America and that is why it is so difficult to take that trip to that America.

Elio Villafranca - Home

Elio Villafranca / Photo © by Kasia Idzkowska

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