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Talking Rhythm and Influence with Elio Villafranca

by Ken Fowser

Django Music Director Ken Fowser sits down with Grammy-Nominated, Guggenheim Fellow (2021) pianist and composer Elio Villafranca. Elio is set to perform with his quartet on March 29th, followed by Los Hacheros, as part of a new Latin and World Music Series at the Django.

 

 

KF: Elio, we are really looking forward to your performance at the Django on Tuesday, March 29th, from 7PM-9:30PM. You’ve assembled quite a band featuring Vincent Herring on saxophone, Adam Olszlewski on bass, and Domo Branch on drums. What drew you to these musicians in particular for this gig, and what kind of music can we expect to hear?

 

EV: I have been playing with Vincent for over the last 10 or so years, since I first created my “Jass Syncopators”. I found in his playing all the knowledge, respect, sound, and love for the tradition of jazz, which is one of the goals of the “Jass Syncopators”. He is also a great friend. In Domo and Adam, I found that they also have a deep respect not only for jazz, but to the tradition of Latin jazz, Cuban music, and music of the Afro Diaspora. This is a great combination of musicians to present my music in the most authentic way possible.

 

KF: You are originally from Cuba, and classically trained in both percussion and composition at the Instituto Superior de Arte in Havana. How do you apply your knowledge of classical and Cuban rhythm, and apply it to the piano in a jazz or Latin jazz setting?

 

EV: I always see the creation of music through the lens of classical music. Latin jazz gives me the rhythmic concept that derived from the rich Afro diaspora in the Americas, which I apply in my music, while jazz gives me the harmony, colors, and freedom to execute it.

 

KF: Who are your top five favorite musicians that have had the greatest impact on your personal style as a musician? Could be any genre.

 

EV: That is a tough question because the influences are not only pure musical, but also philosophical. So, there are many, and they change constantly. Today I would say, in classical music Rachmaninov, in jazz Chick Corea, Monk, Duke Ellington, Miles, and in Latin jazz Peruchin and Chucho Valdes. I know, I gave you more than 5. Ask me again tomorrow…!

 

KF: You were among five finalists hand-picked by Chick Corea to perform at the first Chick Corea Jazz Festival, curated by Chick himself. What was that experience like, and what was it like to get to meet and hang with Chick?

 

EV: Chick was and still is one of my biggest influences in my life, not only musically but spiritually as well. Since the very beginning, learning jazz in Cuba with very little information, Chick became my door to jazz, he also became my anonymous mentor. I am fortunate enough to have the opportunity to spend a lot of time with him, play and talk about music, musical concepts, philosophy, etc. I learned so much from him. It was truly an honor to be selected by one of my heroes to represent his music.

 

KF: What is your approach to composition? What inspires you to write music? And what do you tend to hear first when composing: melody, harmony, or rhythm?

 

EV: As I mentioned, classical music is a big influence on me. I studied classical music for many years and earned a double major in Classical Composition and Classical Percussion. The first thing I seek in a composition, before the melody, the harmony, or even the rhythm is the story, and that, I think, comes from my classical training. That is how I created my latest album “Cinque”, and how I have created my upcoming two albums “Standing by the Crossroads”, and “Don’t Change My Name”. Then the harmony, melody, and rhythm does their part after I have a clear story.

 

KF: For the final and most important question, where are your favorite spots in NYC for authentic Cuban food?

 

EV: Hahaha… well. There is a place called Cuba in the Village that had really good food. The tamales they made were the closest one to home, but I heard that they don’t make them anymore. So, sadly I stopped going there, but still they make good food.