Sunday, 17 January 2010

A renewed love affair with Cuban jazz

Oh right! I went to the Barbados Jazz festival this week, and I must tell you about it. The festival ran every day from January 11th, and ends tonight. I took in two shows: the dinner set at the Crane featuring Elio Villafranca, the Cuban jazz pianist; and yesterday's Jazz on the Hill with Martiniquan band Bwakoré, Tizer and Robin Thicke, yes the American dude, and no he's not a jazz performer but we'll get to that.

The dinner set was plenty swanky, with the proper amount of double-cheek kissing and wineglass brandishing before dinner. It was a mixed but generally older crowd of, say, my parents' generation. Everyone seemed happy to be there, and there was very little of the "I am so over this" eye-rolling that you find among the glitterati of my age group. That was a relief, but not enough of a relief for me to start hanging with my parents. I heard tell there was only one bartender during the cocktail hour, to the exasperation of some. Dinner was crowded and a little awkward to navigate, but tasty enough and well served by the staff, who seemed just as pleasant and mellow as the guests. There's something in that Crane air, I tell you.

At the start of the show, the host mentioned what was on everyone's minds: the earthquake in Haiti and the fact that the festival was engaged in its own effort to raise money for the country. There is a feeling of solidarity in Barbados and I'm sure across the rest of the Caribbean that is almost palpable in the wake of Tuesday's disaster. It's a sense that all we are is fortunate*, some of us more so than others, and that realizing this, there is no choice but to give, and what I hope is an extension of that, to stay committed to helping Haiti thrive in the long term.

When Villafranca took the stage with the rest of his quintet, he straight away set a very easy tone. We were all sat out under the stars on the Crane's stunning grounds, well liquored up and ready to hear some music, so his job getting us to loosen up could have been harder. Still, the unrehearsed, off-the-cuff introductions in his second-language English made us feel like we had wandered into his studio and were watching an oddly professional jam session, which was exactly as it should have been. His quintet included percussion, soprano sax and flute, congas and acoustic bass performing Cuban classics as well as original interpretations like Ogere's Cha from his debut album Encantaciones, and selections from his 2008 The Source in Between.

There is nothing ordinary about Elio's music. Even his take on the classics reflects the most refreshing amalgam of early Afro Cuban music like son and danzón, Latin and American jazz that you will ever hear. Throughout, there are shades of Hancock and Coltrane, and the clincher for me: an unmistakable Thelonious Monk flavour. He uses a light but steady hand as bandleader, and is always the star, even with the other instrumentalists' solos. Most of my Cuban jazz piano experience has included the dancey, more traditional sounds of Sacasas and Valdés, but if this is where new Cuban jazz is going, I'm definitely following.

A bit on Saturday's show in a subsequent post.

*There is a thankfully far less palpable sentiment of the Pat Robertson variety, which I'm quite happy to ignore.


  1. But Mongoose, what did you think of his hands?

  2. Why Varia,

    How fortuitous yet completely surprising that you should ask!

    So I mentioned to smartass Varia up there that Elio (I now know him like that) had the most exquisite hands. I mentioned it several times, apparently too many times, and now she's trying to be all pointed and sarcastic.

    So here, Varia: His hands were OMGWTFBBQ like totes amazing!!!11eleventyone!1!1!!

    Does that work for you? (Smartass.)


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