A New Golden Age of Pianists

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Jazz pianism today stands at an apex.

There have been other moments in the music’s history when innovation rushed ahead of performers and listeners. But more than a century after jazz’s emergence, there are countless virtuosic pianists out there composing, recording and seeking a new vision for the genre.

As a classical music student in Havana, Cuba, Elio Villafranca would spend his lunch money on blank cassettes so he could make tapes of jazz musicians from abroad. Bootlegged recordings like this were the only way that young musicians in Cuba could hear jazz, and Villafranca often used up a month’s worth of lunch money to gain access to precious underground imports.

A tenacious dedication to jazz not only helped Villafranca develop an ear for the genre’s many forms and feels, but it introduced him to a world of music beyond Cuba’s borders—a world that he soon would claim as his own. Now living in the States, Villafranca has emerged as a commanding presence on the jazz scene, not just in the U.S. but throughout the world.

In 2018, Cinqué (artistShare) garnered both critical acclaim and nominations for prestigious awards—a 2019 Grammy in the U.S. and a 2019 Grand Prix du Disque in France. The album, heavily researched, was an ambitious undertaking: Drawing from the story of Joseph Cinque, an enslaved man who led a successful rebellion in 19th-century Cuba, Villafranca created an extended composition with five movements that featured original writing, narration and field recordings of different Congolese diasporic musical idioms. By his own admission, the effort that went into Cinqué has set a high bar.

“What can I do that’s of the same magnitude as that?” Villafranca asked recently. “I want what follows Cinque to be as big as that. Or bigger.”

What’s followed this year are two equally ambitious works, each expressing a different part of Villafranca’s musical persona and requiring a unique creative process. “I think of music in terms of projects. Once I identify the project, I then think about the ensemble,” he explained. “I never repeat myself.”

The first of this year’s undertakings is Don’t Change My Name, a concert piece that premiered June 3 in Barretto Point Park in the Bronx—the site of an enslaved people’s burial ground. The title of the piece refers to the legend of an African-born woman of the Arará religion whose captors changed her name, Tolo-Ño, upon her enslavement.

“Being an immigrant, I started realizing the whole thing about changing names is always about the use of power. ... Taking away people’s names and religion is a power play,” Villafranca said.

For the performance, Villafranca brought together a larger band than for Cinqué, with three horns, a rhythm section, drums, guitar, a pair of percussionists, marimba and a children’s choir from the Bronx Charter School for the Arts. “This is the first time that I’m using a choir,” he explained. “I felt the need for that in this music.”

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