With five discs (and one vinyl-only release) underneath his belt, Elio Villafranca is steadfastly ascending as one of the most intriguing musicians of his generation to emerge from Cuba. His virtuosity on the piano is a standard bearer of an extended legacy of Cuban jazz titans who display impeccable technique, agility and alertness. Too often though, young Cuban jazz musicians are celebrated more for their pyrotechnics than their compositional guile. Villafranca continued to debunked such notions on 20-21 February inside the Jazz at Lincoln Center’s’ Frederick P. Rose Hall with the premiere of his mesmerizing five-part suite, ‘Cinqué: Suite of the Caribbean’.  

Villafranca fronted a slightly streamlined version of his noteworthy ensemble – the Jass Syncopators – with whom he released last year’s critically acclaimed disc, Caribbean Tinge: Live from Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola. The concert band also had a few personnel changes from the disc, such as trombonist Steve Turre and clarinetist Michele Wright augmenting the horn section, and Willie Jones III handling the trap drums. Arturo Stable (Villafranca’s duo partner on 2012’s Dos y Mas) complemented Jonathan Troncoso on percussion. Also guesting were legendary trumpeter Jon Faddis (second night) and vocalist, cellist and banjo player Leyla McCalla.

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The Jass Syncopators made a splendid vehicle for his lofty suite, which constantly shifted in tone and tempo while juxtaposing black American blues, swing and post-bop with indigenous melodies and rhythms from Haiti, Jamaica, Cuba, Puerto Rico and Dominican Republic. The thematic tissues connecting those Caribbean islands were the impact of Congolese music and the inspiring story of Joseph Cinqué, who led the 19th century slave revolt on the Spanish ship, Amistad. Creating this type of expansive canvas and bolstering it with well-research curatorial weight has been Villafranca’s modus operandi since his 2003 debut disc, Incantations Encantaciones; and it has served him well as evidence by Saturday’s performance.

What’s fascinating about ‘Cinqué’ is how Villafranca avoided the obvious while utilizing such indigenous as Cuba’s comparsa (on the joyous closer ‘Comparsa’ and Puerto Rico’s bomba (on the forceful, percussion-driving ‘La Burla de Los Congos’) along with Afro-Latin folkloric melodies. Harmonic shades of Ellingtonia draped the material throughout; they became most evident during the fourth movement, ‘The Night at Bois/Burn Down the Fields.’ Still Villafranca’s evocations weren’t harmonically stuck in yesteryear; they contained the modernity of works by some of his kindred spirits such as Denys Baptiste and Maria Schneider.

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Also impressive was Villafranca’s unwillingness to allow his formidable piano skills to glibly carry the day. His improvisations were indeed lissome but hardly callow and showy. That’s not say that the evening was devoid of riveting solos. Turre thrilled from get-go with his bluesy, plunge-enhanced trombone solo on the opening ‘Cinqué/The Capture/Troubled Waters’ and even more on the third section’s ‘Indigo’ on which he navigated several conch shells against percolating polyrhythms. McCalla also captivated the audience during the third-section with her poignant rendition of the Haitian Creole folk song, ‘Mesi Bondye.’ Faddis and saxophonists Vincent Herring and Gregory Tardy too contributed spirited asides throughout – but like Villafranca’s, they were all in service to the material. In the end, it was Villafranca’s rich, multifaceted suite – as a whole – more than any single spirited solo that made the most lasting impression.

– John Murph

– Photos by Lawrence Sumulong


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Jazz FM has announced the return of the Jazz FM Awards for 2015 as part of the radio station’s 25th birthday celebrations. The DAB station, which recently saw its average listening hours rise in the latest Rajar quarterly figures survey, launched the Jazz FM Awards in 2013 and this second event will take place on Wednesday 10 June in the Great Halls at Vinopolis, the multi-space wine experience venue located in the atmospheric Victorian railway arches at London Bridge.

Produced by Serious, the leading UK jazz and specialist music producers, the awards will feature 11 categories including, Album of the Year; Instrumentalist of the Year; Breakthrough Act; Jazz Innovation of the Year; UK Jazz Act of the Year; International Jazz Artist of the Year; Vocalist of the Year; Blues Artist of the Year; Soul Artist of the Year and Lifetime Achievement. The event will feature guest presenters and live performances including Hugh Masekela, who will receive the Lifetime Achievement Award and perform with pianist Larry Willis.

The inaugural Jazz FM Awards in 2013, held at No1 Marylebone in London, received considerable acclaim from the jazz industry and featured performances by Robert Glasper, Kurt Elling, Gregory Porter and Ahmad Jamal playing with Jamie Cullum. Commenting on the 2015 event, Jazz FM Chairman Richard Wheatley said; “We’re proud to be celebrating 25 years of Jazz FM at this year’s awards which recognise the best musicians and performers. The evening is set to be a fantastic occasion, bringing together the jazz world’s finest with Hugh Masekela headlining what will be an unforgettable night.”

– Jon Newey

For more details visit www.jazzfmawards.com

Legendary jazz producer, Riverside Records founder and Grammy winner Orrin Keepnews died at home in California on 1 March, aged 91. A former editor and jazz writer, Keepnews co-founded the Riverside Records label in 1953 and signed and produced Thelonious Monk, who cut classics such as Brilliant Corners, Monk’s Music and Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane, as well as Wes Montgomery, Cannonball Adderley (pictured left with Keepnews), Sonny Rollins, Randy Weston and Bill Evans, who cut Waltz For Debby and Sunday Night at The Village Vanguard for the label.

Following the label’s demise in 1964 Keepnews founded Milestone Records in 1966 recording musicians such as McCoy Tyner, Gary Bartz and Joe Henderson before selling the company to Fantasy in 1972 where he worked as A&R director. He later started Landmark records in 1985 and in 1999 oversaw the remastering of a Keepnews Editions series of Riverside albums. He won Grammys for Bill Evans, Monk and Duke Ellington reissues, received a Lifetime Achievement award from the national Academy of Redording Arts in 2004 and was given a NEA JazzMasters award by the National Endowment of the Arts in 2011.

– Jon Newey

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Jazz for Labour celebrated diversity, captured the mood for change and set cynicism aside. It began with a solitary Andy Sheppard strolling across the Barbican stage; circular-breathing a stream of perfectly articulated arpeggios. It ended with a comfortably-full house pogoing in unison to a multi-generation township mash-up orchestrated by Courtney Pine.

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In between, over a dozen acts, some put together just for the night, delivered jazz straight-ahead and jazz fused, without a hint of compromise. Tim Garland’s quintet (below with guitarist Phil Robson) romped through ‘Afro Blue’, powered by veteran drummer John Marshall and John Etheridge delivered a shimmering solo reading of Charles Mingus’ ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’. Liane Carroll, Ian Shaw and Claire Martin (above) harmonised brilliantly for an a cappella “You’ve Got a Friend’ and Soweto Kinch and trumpeter Jay Phelps combined atmospherically for the Dolphyesque ballad ‘Vacuum’.

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If the showcase format concentrated minds, the political context added purpose. Garland’s lovely rendition of McCoy Tyner’s “Search for Peace” had this evening in mind, as did Christine Tobin’s lilting rendition of Milton Nasciento’s “Morro Velho”. And Darius Brubeck dedicated his quartet’s classy reading of “You Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance with Me” to “other parties”.

The event was inspired by the 2012 “Jazz for Obama” concert and billed as “a concert for fairness and diversity”. And diversity it delivered in abundance. The first set ended with a triptych of hip-hop, country soul and stirring Arun Ghosh anthems – “inspired by Bangladesh, written in South Manchester”, said Ghosh.

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But more than this, the musicians put corporate language to one side and spoke eloquently from the heart. Alex Webb pointed out that the first integrated nightclub in New York was opened by “a socialist businessman, the sort of person who would be here tonight”. Webb’s Café Society slot featured a stunning performance by vocalist Vimala Rowe (above), who first shimmied through ‘Wild Wild Woman’ and then made ‘Strange Fruit’ into a deeply personal statement. And Soweto Kinch made the letters of Labour the basis of an articulate freestyle rap. The audience chose the words. ‘Liberty’ and ‘Ambition’ were followed by ‘Beer’; R was for ‘revolution’. A great showcase for UK jazz, a great night out and as a rallying-cry for Labour, it worked a treat.

– Mike Hobart
– Photos by Tim Dickeson

Legendary jazz drummer Billy Cobham will be dispensing his unparalleled percussive wizardry at a sold-out Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club tonight. The ticketless among you may believe that this news arrives too late, but fear not! Ronnie’s will be providing a live stream in stunning HD of the entire performance to a global audience.

The broadcast follows on from the immensely popular debut live stream of jazz icon Wynton Marsalis in 2013, which over 25,000 viewed from across the world. Jazzwise is proud to offer an exclusive link to the live stream, direct from the player below. Set your alarm for 11pm, 27 February, log in, sit back and enjoy the show.

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