Fran Vielma has toured around the continent with his star-studded Venezuelan Jazz Collective. His latest release Tendencias includes Vielma’s original works and arrangements featuring Miguel Zenón, Michael Rodríguez, and Luis Perdomo. It was included in the Best of 2018 lists by Downbeat, Latin Jazz Network, & NYC Jazz Record.
As an in-demand performer, he has shared stages around the world with John Medeski, George Garzone, Paul Winter, Simon Phillips, Antonio Sánchez, Miguel Zenón, Sean Jones, Michael Rodríguez, Mango Blue, Eguie Castrillo, Chuchito Valdés, Los Van Van, Yoruba Andabo and Luis Enrique to name a few. He’s a current member of César Orozco & Kamarata Jazz and has been featured in two releases.
Vielma is currently a Jazz Department Faculty of Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University and has been World Music faculty at Salem State University, MA, artist resident at Florida University, Conservatorio de Música de Puerto Rico, Baltimore School of Arts, and Maryland Classic Youth Orchestra among others. Additionally, he directs the Hidden Treasure Music Workshop.
Fran Vielma endorses Meinl Percussion, Vater Drums Sticks, Istanbul Mehmet Cymbals and Africatedra Venezuelan Percussion.
Tell me about your beginnings in music. When and how did you start being interested in percussion?
I started at the age of 10 singing in the Children’s Choir of the Andes University and studying Venezuelan cuatro and theory at the School of Music of the Arts Center of the same University in Mérida, Venezuela. When I reached adolescence I began to study complementary piano, classical percussion, Caribbean percussion and mandolin.
I was very lucky to be exposed to different instruments at the Music School of the The Andes University Arts Center (CUDA), since many of my classmates in the Children’s Choir played one or two instruments, and in many cases some percussion.
At the age of 13, while studying classical percussion and piano, I asked the brother of one of my classmates from music school who played congas to give me private lessons.
My mother – Maritza Vielma, who always wanted me to be a pianist, was not very convinced when I told her that I liked percussion better… However, after a short time, seeing my seriousness in the matter, she decided to buy me my first congas. One day she even brought me a newspaper clipping announcing the first international percussion festival of the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas, and he told me: “check this Francisco, because you should be at this event.”
So, at the age of 18, I went alone to Caracas for the first time to attend the aforementioned festival where I met several of my idols, such as the drummer legend Arístides Soto “Tata” Güines, and the masters Giovanni Hidalgo, Carlos “Nené” Quintero, and Frank “El Pavo” Hernández, among many other prominent percussionists on the Venezuelan music scene.
The various traditional and avant-garde proposals, not only from Venezuela but also from neighboring countries present at this festival, convinced me to move to Caracas to deepen my percussion studies with international musicians.
When and how did you start your musical studies formally in Venezuela?
My formal music studies began at the age of 10 thanks to my Mother, who encouraged me to enroll in the School of Music of the Arts Center of the Andes University. Later, I decided to join the Youth Symphony Orchestra in Mérida, and then I continued my studies, this time in classical composition, at the Experimental University of the Arts in Caracas.
Additionally, from the beginning I was in contact with traditional Venezuelan music. For several years I was part of the Ensemble Kimbandú, with which I made research trips on Afro-descendant music from various regions of Venezuela. I was also part of the Mérida State Venezuelan music student group, and groups of aguinaldos and gaitas (bagpipes), with which I was performing Christmas repertoire.
My connection with Afro-Caribbean popular music came from my participation in different groups of Cuban son, salsa, and Dominican merengue from the local scene of Mérida and Caracas.
Now we jump to Berklee College of Music and the New England Conservatory of Music. What is the importance of this training in your musical and artistic career?
Deciding to go to study at a university abroad, especially in the United States, required great financial, logistical, and personal planning for me.
I was fortunate to receive a partial scholarship to complete my degree in music at Berklee College of Music, but unfortunately it did not cover all my expenses, and my family did not have the resources to support me. So, for a year I collected a large part of the money from the tours, from my salary as a teacher at Taller de Jazz Caracas, and from the sale of most of my instruments to be able to take my flight to Boston.
Once at Berklee I had incredible mentors like Jamey Haddad, Bertram Lehmann, Casey Scheuerell, Terry Lyne Carrington, Dave Johnson, Jackson Schultz, Randy Felts, among others, who greatly influenced my development as a person, artist, and educator.
Then came my stint at the New England Conservatory of Music, where I completed a master’s degree in jazz studies. In fact, this was the institution where I wanted to study since I started planning my move to the United States, however, I always knew that Berklee would make my path to it easy.
At the NEC, I dedicated myself to developing my artistic discourse and vision as an educator under the mentorship of Ken Schaphorst, Billy Hart, Bob Moses, Frank Carlberg among others. I led the ensemble of the Jazz Department Ambassadors, and with them I participated in the International Jazz Festival in Panama, and traveled to Venezuela to take part in a jazz seminar that I produced in conjunction with the Venezuelan-American Center, and the University of the Andes, VE.
Then come the recognitions and projects commissioned by prestigious organizations such as Chamber Music America…
Last year I was awarded the New Jazz Works Grant from Chamber Music America, to compose a suite that I am currently working on. In this work, I want to make a small sample of the relationship between Venezuelan music and that of various neighboring countries, both in the southern cone and in the Caribbean. The suite is called “Common Grounds” and will be premiered in November of this year at the renowned SFJAZZ in the city of San Francisco.
Prior to this, in 2019 I had the honor of being part of the first promotion of artists awarded with the South Arts Jazz Roads Grant, which allowed me to tour the Caribbean and the United States, and to show on different stages and locations my vision about Venezuelan Jazz with my all-stars Venezuelan Jazz Collective. This attracted the attention of the DC Commission for the Arts and Humanities, which has awarded me the Artist Fellowship on two occasions to develop different composition projects, in the educational area, participation in festivals and conferences, and more recently the creation of my Jazz Orchestra with which I pay tribute to Pan-American jazz alongside world-class musicians based in the Washington, DC metropolitan area.
Now tell me about your album Tendencias and about the Venezuelan Jazz Collective. How was the experience, the process of conceptualization, creation and the recording of this important project?
In Venezuela I was already working with my group Nuevas Almas on the fusion of elements of the country’s music with jazz, and of course with what is known as Latin Jazz or more widely called Pan-American Jazz.
And moving to Boston in 2010, I wanted to continue to develop this. Composing the music for Tendencias took several years to materialize and take shape on an aesthetic level, as I have set out to explore things in the composition not only of jazz, but also of academic music of the 20th century, and especially in the way of presenting them together with the Venezuelan genres.
In 2015, I invited Venezuelan artists and artists from other countries to New York, mostly based in the US, who had a solid background in the traditional language of jazz and, at the same time, knowledge of Afro-diasporic music from the continent. For the rhythm section, I invited the Venezuelans Roberto Koch on double bass, Pablo Bencid on drums, and Luis Perdomo and César Orozco on piano and Rhodes. In metals, Michael “Mike” Rodríguez on trumpet (Cuban/Ecuadorian), Miguel Zenón on alto sax (Puerto Rican), and Ángel Subero on trombone (Venezuelan). Each one in their corner have developed outstanding careers worldwide, within contemporary jazz and classical music, as well as growing up with strong exposure to the music of the Americas.
Tendencias came out in 2018 and was very well received by specialized critics, and was among the best releases of the year in Downbeat Magazine, Latin Jazz Network and New York City Jazz Records, being an independent production.
Tell me about the members of the band and how you work with them to carry out your musical work…
As they say out there, music is not only the art of combining sounds, but also schedules… And in the event that the schedules do not coincide, I have a list of colleagues of the highest artistic level who identify with my aesthetic search, and have great human quality. The most frequent on our tours today are Santiago Bosch on piano, Peter Slavov or Gabriel Vivas on acoustic bass, Pablo Bencid or Tiago Michelin on drums, Alex Norris or Sean Jones on trumpet, Antonio Orta, Román Filiú or Erena Terakubo on alto sax, and Marshall Gilkes or Jacob Garchik on trombone.
Let’s talk about your international projection, the invitations to participate in jazz festivals… what events do you remember in particular?
In 2019 I was with the VJC at the Puerto Rico International Percussion Festival. This presentation was of great relevance, since it was a jazz group fused specifically with elements of Venezuelan music and drums. The rest of the groups that performed were more related to popular Latin jazz, despite the fact that Puerto Rico has a wide variety of musical genres and instruments.
Then, before the pandemic (January 2020), I was with the collective at the renowned Jazz Plaza Festival in Havana, Cuba, and this has definitely been a milestone in my career as a bandleader. This festival is one of the oldest in the continent and through which very important icons of the genre have passed. We had two presentations, Casa de la Cultura Plaza and Jardines del Teatro Mella, in the latter -a full house- we alternated with the renowned group “Yoruba Andabo,” who showed great interest and appreciation for my musical proposal.
How has the covid-19 crisis affected you? What has this terrible experience left you? Is there something positive that you can value?
I think that like many colleagues, the pandemic and its ravages had several phases. For me, the most representative was reflection and valuing the moments and experiences lived both professionally and personally. There were many icons and loved ones who unfortunately did not survive the pandemic, and others who are still struggling to survive it.
For a moment I thought that we were not going to present ourselves in front of the public again and the financial needs were a factor of anguish and restlessness.
Among the positive things is the support that arose from different organizations for independent workers or artists. I believe that these aids or emergency funds obtained should be better valued and rewarded once they are stabilized in our fields, since a situation like this could repeat itself.
Another positive thing is that technology boomed, and although these tools had been around for a while in our daily lives, in many cases we hadn’t exploited them. Thanks to these tools, I participated and produced several videos together with my colleagues, I developed a series of talks with renowned artists, I did a residency and presented a virtual concert with the Venezuelan Jazz Collective at Salem State University, MA from Maryland, I participated in the Jazz Education Network Conference, and I was invited as professor of the jazz department of the prestigious Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins University.
What are your projects right now and for the near future?
As I mentioned before, I am in the process of researching and composing the Chamber Music America commission, which will be premiered at SFJazz on November 3, 2022 together with the Venezuelan Jazz Collective plus a special guest on vocals. In addition to this, we are coordinating other presentations in the western US that include the Jazz Showcase in Chicago, and Sam First in Los Angeles, among others to be confirmed. On the other hand, we resumed the plans of a European tour that was planned for 2020.
I am also working on the music of my Jazz Orchestra making a tribute to contemporary Pan-American jazz with which I will perform on September 26, 2022 during the Hispanic Heritage Celebration at the famed Blues Alley in Washington, DC. In turn, we have been in residence once a month at the local Mr. Henry’s since December 2021. I plan to take this group to different stages around the world.
How was your recent concert at Dizzy’s Club, Jazz at Lincoln Center in NYC?
This concert was planned for 2020, so I really appreciate that they rescheduled this date in May 2022. It was a great honor to have brought the Venezuelan Jazz Collective to what is perhaps the most important temple of jazz in the world today. There I presented not only my original music, but also a small tribute with my arrangements of the Venezuelan songbook with the singer and flutist Jeremy Bosch as a special guest. The musicians who accompanied me were Santiago Bosch on piano, Dan Martínez on acoustic bass, Tiago Michelin on drums, Alex Norris on trumpet, Erena Terakubo on alto sax and Marshall Gilkes on trombone. I hope to be able to return to this wonderful setting soon.