Elio Villafranca


Pianist/composer Elio Villafranca is the latest in a decades-long line of Cuban musicians who has integrated African, European and Pan-American musical concepts. His two-disc set is a compelling and complex dedication to Cinque, the Sierra Leonean who led a bloody revolt aboard the Cuba-bound slave ship Amistad in 1839 and later was freed by John Quincy Adams.

The ensemble here primarily consists of Villafranca’s group, The Jass Syncopaters. With a pianistic style that echoes Duke Ellington and McCoy Tyner, the bandleader narrates Cinque’s story with references to the Haitian Revolution and the free Maroon colonies of runaway slaves. And it’s all augmented by Villafranca’s field recordings of Cuban/Congo-derived conga and palo mayombe chants and rhythms, along with other Afro-derived music from Haiti, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and New Orleans, melded with the jazz language. Special guest Wynton Marsalis’ Crescent City cries on the processional pulsations of “La Burla De Los Congos (Part II),” Greg Tardy’s tenor madness on “Madre Agua (Part III)” and Leyla McCalla’s Vodou-vamped vocals on “Mèsy Bondye” are but a few examples of how Villafranca’s opus depicts the Dark Continent illuminating the Americas.