Grammy-nominated Cuban jazz composer Elio Villafranca performs at Painted Bride

3 minute read
Villafranca's first gig in Philly was at Painted Bride 22 years ago. (Photo by Jerry Lacay.)
Villafranca's first gig in Philly was at Painted Bride 22 years ago. (Photo by Jerry Lacay.)

In 2018, Cuban-born pianist and composer Elio Villafranca won the Downbeat Critic’s Poll for Rising Star on the Keyboards, but the excitement definitely didn’t stop there. Villafranca was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Latin Jazz Album this year for his latest project Cinque, a five-movement suite inspired by Joseph Cinqué, who led a rebellion in 1839 on the slave ship La Amistad.

This self-effacing musician said, “I found out it was nominated on my way to teach classes at Manhattan School of Music and I got a call from Steinway. They said, ‘Congratulations!' I said, 'Are you giving me a new piano or something?' And then they told me I was nominated.…Then emails started pouring in from my friends.”

Villafranca is now being considered for the prestigious French Académie Charles Cros Award; the Grand Prix du Disque is the premier French award for musical recordings.

Luckily, Elio Villafranca will be performing this ambitious piece for Philly audiences on March 30 at the Painted Bride Art Center; sadly, it might possibly be the last performance produced at this revered venue. At this thought, the pianist says, “It's pretty sad. I considered the Bride like a part of my home. It was the first place that opened the door to my music.”

Asked about why this pianist was booked at the Bride for this bittersweet performance, curator and percussionist Lenny Seidman says, “The Bride is the first place he gigged at when he arrived in Philly 22 years ago from Cuba. The Bride has been kind of a portal for him over the years and I've watched him grow and develop into an amazing musician. He's expanded his vision and developed into the force he is today.”

Villafranca is bringing in a 10-piece all-star group: saxophonists Vincent Herring and Greg Tardy, bass clarinetist Todd Marcus, trumpeter Freddie Hendrix, trombonist James Burton, bassist Ricardo Rodriguez, drummer Lewis Nash, and percussionists Arturo Stable and Jonathan Troncoso. And Seidman is thrilled that so many drums will be on stage. “For me, as a percussionist, I love the presence of these various drums from five different cultures. It's like going to a gelato shop.”

About Cinque, the pianist said “It was commissioned by the Lincoln Center and I wrote ‘Troubled Water’ based on Cinque's rebellion. But I wasn't really thinking at that time of writing a suite, but when I saw the audience appreciation of that piece, I decided to write about his entire journey. When he was free as a man, then captured, leading into the rebellion. Then I thought, ‘Cinque’ means five so then I thought I should do a five-movement suite to look at all the regions in the Caribbean with similar stories of rebellions for freedom.”

Cinque explores the musical diversity of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Jamaica while accentuating the Congolese heritage intertwined in these five nations due to the forced migration of Africans to the Americas, and in Villafranca’s wonderful storytelling hands this performance is assured to be memorable.

This is a CD-release party, so bring a few extra dollars with you to buy yours, and get your tickets early for this one performance. They won’t last long.

Cinque comes to the Painted Bride Art Center, 230 Vine Street, Philadelphia, PA. March 30 at 8pm. Tickets are $20 for general admission.

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