Elio Villafranca

Tune into the Grammys on February 10th. Elio Villafranca’s monumental album Cinqué is nominated for the Best Latin Jazz album. Cinqué, per Villafranca, “showcases the cultural diversity of the five  Caribbean islands of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic  and Jamaica.” It weaves African traditions “into the fabric of each of these nations.” His instrumentation, vocals and spoken word shape a narrative of the revolt by the slave Joseph Cinqué aboard the Amistad slave ship. Villafranca rightfully earns authorship of the dramatic story in this double album that incorporates field recordings.  The first movement begins with the celebratory El Rey del Congo. The subsequent narration shifts the listener into the music to The Capture and through the dramatic keyboard and horns in Troubled Waters.  The tentative lines of New Sky reflect Cinqué’s hesitation that leads to chaos in the First Colony. The music returns to the Congo and the drums become more insistent.  The sweetness of Haitian-American singer Leyla McCalla on Mesi Bondye (Thank God) is accompanied by Don Vappie’s banjo. The final song, Maluaga from Villafranca’s childhood, is sung entirely acapella.

The 2018 recording features  Wynton Marsalis (trumpet), Freddy Hendrix (trumpet), Steve Turre (trombone, conch shells), Greg Tardy (tenor saxophone, clarinet), Vincent Herring (alto sax, flute), Todd Marcus (bass clarinet), Ricky Rodriguez (acoustic bass), Leyla McCalla (cello, banjo, vocals) and percussionists Jonathan Troncoso, Arturo Sable and Miguel Valdes as well as drummer Lewis Nash.

Elio Villafranca was nominated for a Grammy in 2010 for Things I Wanted to Do that he coproduced with master congo drummer Chembo Corniel.  In an interview with John Ephland with Downbeat Magazine, Villafranca described his overall approach: “When I’m composing I think more like a classical composer than a jazz musician…” He was classically trained in both percussion and composition at the Instituto Superior de Arte in Havana. He teaches at Juilliard, NYU, Manhattan School of Music and Temple University in Philadelphia.

Rising Star in the Keyboard category for 2018 awarded by Downbeat magazine’s International Critics. In 2015 he was tapped by Chick Corea to be one of five pianists to perform in the inaugural Chick Corea Festival at Jazz at Lincoln Center.  His keyboard work led to collaborations with Wynton Marsalis, Terrell Stafford and Paquito D’Rivera and other jazz masters. He has earned numerous awards including the BMI Jazz Guaranty award in 2008 and the Sunshine Award in 1989 for excellence in his contributions to the performing arts.  

In 2019/2020 listeners can expect a new recording from Villafranca that brings us back to the 1950’s in Havana and the Cuban jazz traditions of the Club Tropicana and the Los Amigos.