The name [and reputation] of the great Cuban composer and pianist Frank Emilio Flynn bears similarities to that of the Brasilian composer and saxophonist Moacir Santos. Each man is revered in the country of his birth, but almost unknown – certainly all-but-forgotten – outside them. But in Cuba – as in Brasil – music is not just in the soul of its people it IS the soul of its people. This is sometimes difficult to understand in countries like the US and in ours – Canada. Most of us are either ignorant of anything that exists outside our borders [sometimes even outside our own homes]; history is a subject not meant to be learned, or contemplated upon, certainly if it is not written and blessed by colonial history. That’s why African countries get referred to as “shithole” countries, Cuba as “the enemy” and Brasil as a “failed state” or a country of forest-loving, revellers to whom debauchery comes easily. The truth is far from that and the artistry of Frank Emilio Flynn [and Moacir Santos] tells us so.
If you’re “a Yankee” or even “a Canuck” and you are asked to think of Brasilian music and one of the first names that might come to mind is probably Antonio Carlos Jobim. Likewise with Cuba, many will say the Buena Vista Social Club; not Bebo Valdés, or even his son, Chucho; for Canadians, maybe Hilario Durán… But it’s highly unlikely that the name of Frank Emilio Flynn will be the first to roll off the tongue. And that is sad because Frank Emilio is a titan of music – yes, not just Cuban music, but all music. The pianist was born on the 13th of April, 1921. A tragic mishandling of the forceps by the gynecologist during his delivery damaged his eyes at birth. The death of his mother when he was 5 years old, the return to the US of his North American father meant that he had to be raised by an aunt and uncle. He lost his eyesight completely by the time he was in his late-teens, but not before he mastered the piano, winning an amateur contest in 1934, when he was just 13 years old. He turned professional during that period and joined the group led by Antonio Maria Romeu; but in 1938 he furloughed his professional career to complete his education at Cuba’s National Association for the Blind.
By the 1940s Frank Emilio’s musical career ascended in a steep arc. He became associated with the filin movement and the dazzling Jazz-influenced boleros became all the rage of the Cuban musical cognoscenti. In 1951 Frank Emilio founded what has come to be called Los Modernistas. featuring José Antonio Méndez on guitar, Justi Barreto on percussion and Francisco Fellové on vocals amongst others. Patrick Dalmace, in his French blog Montuno Cubano, notes that “the band played at Radio Cadena Habana and toured the island before disbanding. Flynn then joined a son ensemble, Alejandro y sus Muchachos, and in 1955 he recorded four songs with Arcaño y sus Maravillas.”
Throughout the 1950s and after his reputation soared via the Club Cubana de Jazz, then with the first incarnation of Grupo Cubano de Música Moderna with Tata Güines on congas, Gustavo Tamayo on güiro, Walfredo de los Reyes on drums [Guillermo Barreto replaced Reyes in 1959], and Orlando “Papito” Hernández on bass [Orlando “Cachaíto” López replaced Hernández in 1965]. Their brilliant descargas became famous within Cuba and news of this spread overseas too. By the time Frank Emilio added musicians such as violinist Elio Valdés, flautist Miguel O’Farrill, batá drummer Jesús Pérez, percussionist Angá Díaz, timbalero Changuito, güiro and claves player Enrique Lazaga, [later with bassist Carlos del Puerto and flutist Orlando “Maraca” Valle] he had become a legend in his lifetime. Los Amigos, as this band was known made their first recording for EGREM in 1982. This band also backed the great vocalist Merceditas Valdés. In 1996 Frank Emilio joined Jose Maria Vitier on Jane Bunnett’s classic album, Jane Bunnett and The Cuban Piano Masters.
Frank Emilio made one of his most iconic contributions to music by writing piano manuals in braille. But it is for his pianism for which he is best-known. He brought the mathematical precision of Bach together with the impressionistic brush-strokes of Ravel and the rhythmic mastery of Afro-Cuban and Afro-American jazz into a volcanic mix of music. Frank Emilio is also [along with Peruchín] the proverbial bridge between the old soneros and danzón masters such as Bebo Valdés and the modern musicians such as Chucho Valdés, Emiliano Salvador, Hilario Durán, Ernán López-Nussa, Emilio Morales, Roberto Carcassés and virtually every Cuban pianist who plays today, including the expatriates in the United States of America. In fact Chucho Valdés once said [and he still probably believes] that: “Frank Emilio is a pianist who has influenced every subsequent generation, and those to come, because he’s kept up to date. You can’t talk about Frank Emilio in the past because he’s still very much present.” That was in 1998.
It’s still true today although much of the world may seem to have lost its taste for the eloquent, the poetic and the eternal. Not in Cuba, however, which remains the strongest advocate for Cuban art – especially music. Those wonderful folks at Bis Music in Havana proved this [once again] with a breathtaking tribute to Frank Emilio entitled Amor & Piano. The original idea for this production came from Tony Pinelli, who also wrote booklet notes to the edition, helmed by Emilio Vega as director of music, with Alina Calleja acting as production executive. The genius of this production is quite elusive; none of the songs have been written by Frank Emilio, and yet his spirit seems to hover like a great muse through every rhapsodic phrase; in the harmonic conception and through the rhythmic extravaganza that laces the music of each of the ten songs.
The disc begins with a brilliant danzón, “Franchando”, written and performed by Emilio Morales. The tone for the entire programme is set right here. Listened to when the lights are turned down low this could easily be one of those seductive danzones that Frank Emilio played during his career. But this danzón blooms with the pure melodic ingenuity of the pianist Emilio Morales. “Pan con Timba” follows in which the young Aldo López Gavilán traverses with seemingly magic fingers across the keyboard. A myriad of styles collide in this masterful solo impression. “Lázara y Georgina” begins with a superbly toned, rumbling introduction on the contrabass by Roberto Riverón, before Orlando “Cachaito” López, grandson of the great Peruchín Justiz masterfully dissects the danzón form in the spirit of Frank Emilio.
Tony Pérez performs “Requiem para un pianista”, a 2001 work written to commemorate Frank Emilio’s passing. It is a solo performance that captures the bitterness of the loss of a great pianist. But the solo work also soars in its impromptu improvisation, ascending, if you will, with the soaring spirit of Frank Emilio. “La flauta mágica” is a gorgeous little miniature, referencing the music of Mozart. It was written by Frank Emilio’s first employer, Antonio Maria Romeu and is played here – again as a danzón – by pianist Lázaro Valdés, playing with spectacular angularity, accompanied by the mighty tresero Pancho Amat. It is music played deep in the tradition, as Frank Emilio often did; the masterful performance on flute by José Luis Cortés makes this music all the more memorable.
The inimitable Ernán López-Nussa follows that with an original impish composition, “Dinga, dongo, dunga”, his brilliant take on one of Frank Emilio’s iconic compositions – the wonderfully puckish “Gandinga, Mondongo y Sandunga”. Mr López-Nussa’s treatment of this music is truly orchestral, while also mixing in danzón, and he is joined in the festivities by trumpeter Mayquel González, tenor saxophonist Orlando Sánchez, and by contrabassist Jorge Reyes as well as the legendary percussionists Tata Güines, Changuito and Don Pancho Terry – each of whom is provided room to stretch, making for a breathtaking performance. But one of the finest tracks on this disc – probably its apogee, at least for me – follows with pianist Rolando Luna playing the elegiac music of José Antonio Méndez, entitled “Si me comprendieras”. Although the bolero is highlighted by guitarist Carlos Emilio, it is Mr Luna’s heart-on-the-sleeve performance that will make you catch your breath. It’s unlikely that you will have heard something so ethereally beautiful and climactic in a long time by a pianist to watch, who is said to have the harmonic touch of Bill Evans.
Roberto Carcassés follows Mr Luna’s performance with a classic chart from the legendary Cuban bandleader Ignacio Piñeiro. Mr Carcassés’ fingerwork speaks to his own brilliant pianism. His mastery of the rumba form is also evident as he plumbs the depths of Afro-Cuban music and dance forms; something Frank Emilio also did with uncommon genius. The penultimate work is “Scherezada”, a dazzling cha-cha-chá performed by another young Cuban piano master, Alexis Bosch. Here too, there is another highlight, and that is the brilliant playing of alto saxophonist César López, who seems to have the reflexes of a cat when it comes to rambling up and down the saxophone’s registers. If the ambience and mood ebbs and flows throughout this disc it certainly reaches its most magical climactic moments on a work by the great Tata Güines entitled “Pa’ gozá”. The pianist here is another masterful young Cuban virtuoso, Miguel “Miguelito” de Armas, who is also joined by violinist Lázaro Dagoberto González and the mighty rhythmic wall of Roberto Riverón, Tata Güines, Tomás “El Panga” Ramos and Changuito. You couldn’t ask for a better, more explosive end to a disc to die for.
Track list – 1: Franchando; 2: Pan con timba; 3: Lázara y Georgina; 4: Requiem para un pianista; 5: La flauta mágica; 6: Dinga, dongo, dunga; 7: Si me comprendieras; 8: La mulata rumbera; 9: Scherezada; 10: Pa’ gozá
Personnel – The Pianists – Emilio Morales, Aldo López Gavilán, Orlando “Cachaito” López, Tony Pérez, Lázaro Valdés, Ernán López-Nussa, Rolando Luna, Roberto Carcassés , Alexis Bosch, Miguel “Miguelito” de Armas. Special Guests – Tata Güines: tumbadora [6, 10; Carlos Emilio: guitar ; Changuito: pailas [6, 10; Jorge Reyes: contrabass ; Pancho Amat: tres ; Emilio del Monte [pailas [3, 5, 7]; Lazaro Dagoberto González: violin [10; Don Pancho Terry: chekere ; César López: alto saxophone ; Tomás “El Panga” Ramos: percussion [5, 7, 9, 10]; Mayquel González: trumpet ; Orlando Sánchez: tenor saxophone ; Roberto Riverón: contrabass [3, 5, 7, 9, 10]