A New Golden Age Of Pianists

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Villafranca intends to record the piece with the same band and choir that performed at the Bronx date. But before he releases Don’t Change My Name as a recording, he’ll launch On Any Given Night In Havana by the end of 2020. With the album—work beginning six years ago—Villafranca departs from the Afro-Caribbean material he’s known for and delves into the exciting conga-led descarga music of 1940s and ’50s Cuba, using song forms like son, danzon, cha-cha, bolero and guaracha.

The musicians who led the descarga movement—like conga player Tata Güines, of the Cuban group Los Amigos—“are heroes of mine,” Villafranca said. “To pay tribute to them, I needed it to be that time-specific. It’s a big part of my heritage that I haven’t recorded yet and that I want to document.”

Much of the drive behind Villafranca’s growing international career is this desire to document and share the music of his home country with the world. He understands that sharing the music leads to greater understanding among people—it’s something he learned back in his Havana schools days. After filling his blank tapes with bootlegged jazz, Villafranca would share his discoveries with friends, and they would share their food with him. “It was a beautiful community,” he recalled.

WHETHER THROUGH RECORDINGS, FORMAL TRAINING OR MENTORSHIP, early exposure to a multiplicity of musical influences factor heavily into the development of today’s up-and-coming pianists’ creative visions. James Francies—whose October 2018 debut on Blue Note Records, Flight, captured wide attention—exemplifies the artist who learns by doing, with ears wide open to everything going on around him.

A graduate of the Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Houston and The New School in New York, Francies’ precocity caught the attention of Blue Note President Don Was early on—when Francies was just 17. A few years later, Was invited Francies to join the label, but didn’t put any pressure on him to record. “He told me to make the album when I was ready,” Francies said.

When the pianist finally settled in to record Flight, a collection of distinctly personal originals, he borrowed from all of his formative influences: electronica, hip-hop, pop, r&b and jazz. Novel and syncretic, each tune on the release “is a reaction to things I’ve experienced, and each one has a backstory,” Francies said.

With the album, Francies—already an in-demand sideman among the jazz elite—staked his claim as an inventive creative force in modern jazz. You can hear the freshness of his concepts on the heady “Dreaming”: While lyricist/singer Chris Turner’s preternatural vocals spin with effects, Francies comps on acoustic piano, his bright changes and free-falling improvisations offset by an impellent drum line.

This smooth hybridization of modern jazz and enhanced pop sounds comes effortlessly to Francies, who is as likely to play with contemporary acts like Lauryn Hill and Chance the Rapper as with jazz artists Pat Metheny and Stefon Harris. “It’s how I hear things,” the keyboardist said. “Incorporating all that into the album was just natural.”

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