Elio Villafranca: Blazing Original Afro-Cuban Grooves at JALC
You might think from their name that Elio Villafranca & the Jass Syncopators play New Orleans second-line marches, or hot jazz from the 20s. In actuality, that’s just how the word for their music is pronounced in Spanish. Last night at Jazz at Lincoln Center, the Cuban pianist and his allstar lineup romped through an expert and exhilarating blend of salsa and hard bop with richly melodic interludes and the occasional plunge into third-stream sounds. That’s been a common trait among Cuban pianists practically since the days of Ernesto Lecuona – at least those evil conquistadors left one good thing on the island, the “classical tinge,” to twist a Jelly Roll Morton phrase. Much as that is one of Villafranca’s signature characteristics, this show was all about the party: watching the couples sit and sway rapturously with the lights of Manhattan glimmering from high across the park, it was surprising that there wasn’t anyone other than guest dancer Mara Garcia undulating up there with the band.
Throughout the night’s early set, Villafranca for the most part eschewed flashy soloing in lieu of an endless groove, whether that be a frequently polyrhythmic salsa slink – Villafranca is one of the most rhythmic pianists anywhere – with straight-ahead swing, a couple of detours into rumbling Puerto Rican bomba and a long, fiery mambo at the end. Locked in with the tumbling piano, tenor saxophonist Greg Tardy alternated between hard-driving flights and warm melodicism and a wryly smoky bourdoir jazz interlude toward the end of the bomba tune. Trumpeter Terrell Stafford blasted through bop grit with rapidfire glissandos and trills…and a descent into genial blues at the end of his last solo, when he’d taken it so high that there was nowhere else to go. Alto saxophonist Vincent Herring served as a powerful foil to all the goodnatured wailing, adding a biting, sometimes haunting, modally-fueled gravitas. Bassist Carlos Enrique held to a purist, terse groove – and took one of the night’s most memorable solos, voicing a horn. Drummer Lewis Nash seemed to be having the most fun of anyone up there as he swung through conga riffs, artful clave variations that leaned on the off beat, and a jovial bounce that was all the more powerful for its simplicity.
Augmenting the rhythm was an excellent two-man team of congas and bongos, Puerto Rico’s Anthony Carrillo and the Dominican Republic’s Jonathan Troncoso. The attractively lyrical opening number, Incantations, had Villafranca staking his claim to nimble, hair-raising polyrhythms. The band bookended a brightly pouncing, riff-driven tune with dark streetcorner conga breaks, following with a song “dedicated to politics,” A Great Debater, Villafranca driving its insistence to a clamoring crescendo followed by a playful Nash solo. They wound up by taking a new, untitled bomba tune and swinging it with bisected, lyrical/frenetic solos from the horns, and then the big mambo at the end where Villafranca finally took off for the upper registers with a breathtaking tumbao assault: as cruelly as he hit the keys, the groove never wavered. It was every bit as adrenalizing to watch as it must be to dance to. Villafranca and his “jass” band are back at Dizzy’s Club tonight and tomorrow if you’re in the mood.