Jazz Meets Classical: The Music of Cuba Celebrates Afro-Cuban Traditions

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Elió Villafranca

Courtesy / Artist

Elió Villafranca will perform in the 26th annual Jazz Meets Classical concert at Christ Episcopal Church on Sunday and the McNay Art Museum on Tuesday.

You can feel the lushness of Cuban plantations and the joyous abandon of dance halls in the jazz of composer Elió Villafranca. The traditional Afro-Cuban drumming he grew up with permeates his piano performance.

Villafranca will perform in the 26th annual Jazz Meets Classical concert, presented by Musical Offerings, on Sunday at 3 p.m. and Tuesday at 7 p.m. The Sunday concert will take place at Christ Episcopal Church, 510 Belknap Place, and the Tuesday performance will be at the McNay Art Museum, 6000 N. New Braunfels Ave. Tickets for the concerts can be purchased here.

“Villafranca is what Jazz Meets Classical is all about,” said Joan Christenson, Musical Offerings' founder and artistic director. “We meld the classical tradition with jazz, even improvisational jazz, in programs that include both, and Elió is a classically trained jazz musician.”

Christenson’s Jazz Meets Classical Ensemble, this year with 11 musicians, will perform works by Cuban classical composers Oriente Lopez, whom Christenson compares to Leonard Bernstein, and Paquito D’Rivera, a clarinetist and saxophonist who has won 14 Grammys and has been a solo performer on more than 30 albums of both jazz and classical music. Local jazz singer Joan Carroll will add vocals to three pieces, including Dindi by Antonio Carlos Jobim and Il y a des Fleurs by local composer and clarinetist James Balentine. Villafranca will join the ensemble on five of his pieces, all jazz compositions.

Villafranca was born in a region of tobacco plantations about 100 miles west of Havana. Through a 13-year, tuition-free music education program, he has catapulted to teaching at the Juilliard School of Music’s jazz program and at the Esther Boyer College of Music and Dance at Temple University in Philadelphia. After graduating from the Escuela Nacional de Arte in Havana, he attended the Instituto Superior de Arte and earned a double major in classical percussion and composition with a concentration in piano.

While studying classical guitar, percussion, and piano, he told The Juilliard Journal, he was hearing another sound on the streets – the drumbeats of the Congolese tambor yuka, the product of an old tradition. A tambor yuka ismade from hollow avocado trunks with a sheepskin nailed to the side, and it's tuned and tightened with fire,” he explained.

That percussive tradition lives in his compositions.

“As a pianist, my rhythmic approach to pianism comes from my roots, training, and exposure to Afro-Cuban music,” he told The Juilliard Journal. “As a composer, I incorporate techniques in composition from the classical music canon, which I draw on not only when I'm composing, but also when I'm improvising."

He premiered his Cinqué: Suite of the Caribbean as part of the prestigious Jazz at Lincoln Center series in 2015. The suite, like the works featured in the San Antonio concert, fuses dances from Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Jamaica with Congolese rhythms and melodies.

 San Antonio-based jazz pianist and composer Aaron Prado said hearing Villafranca will be illuminating for local jazz players who tend to categorize Latin jazz as one certain sound, whereas “there are a couple dozen different kinds, like Afro-Cuban, bossa nova, Puerto Rican salsa, and Argentine tango.

“It will be exciting to hear someone who actually grew up with Afro-Cuban music.”

Besides Balentine and Carroll, the Jazz Meets Classical Ensemble this year will include jazz trumpeter Curtis Calderon, pianist David Wyman (on classical pieces), and a string quintet from the San Antonio Symphony, including violinists Christenson and Karen Stiles, violist Daniel Wang, cellist Qizhen Liu, and Zlatan Redzic on bass. Mike Mixtacki will handle percussion.

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