The musical journey of the consummate pianist and erudite composer, Elio Villafranca may be described as nothing if not what the celebrated Victor Frankl described in his iconic book [as] Man’s Search for Meaning. Consequently, Mr Villafranca’s music – while being enormously entertaining in it being tous les sens de l’esthétique des beaux-arts – has also always attempted to penetrate the skin of his singular humanity. His last two albums – Cinque , which told the story of the famous freed slave Joseph Cinque, performed with his group Jass Syncopators, and Don’t Change My Name  which was a brilliant journey into the life of Florentina/Victoria Zulueta, a young slave girl from Dahomey. Both epic narratives enabled Mr Villafranca to discover his own Afro-Cuban origins as a child of Pinar del Rio in Cuba.
Through all of his musical adventures Mr Villafranca has made it clear that while his musical roots were Afro-Cuban, that musical route almost always ran parallel with the twin cultural tributary that was indeed improvised Afro-American music. In fact, his use of the word ‘jass’ in the name of his ensemble permanently inked his [Mr Villafranca’s] name in the music continuum as being a ‘black musician’, deeply rooted in the Black Music of the Americas, to give the cultural topography of this improvised music the widest possible sweep.
Now Mr Villafranca has taken a step or two back to cast a sort of refocus in his journey. The result in Standing by the Crossroads, a two-disc expose of an inward-looking perspective into what has created the real Elio Villafranca and the raison d’être, if you will, for his entire oeuvre – indeed for his musical existence. Of course, the journey begins in Cuba, with what is entitled H.B.C. Habana Blues Chronicle, but by shaping it right from the outset in a beautifully sculpted ostinato figure shaped by its minor variation that suggests an inward-looking musical interrogative, which is masterfully transformed towards a sense of resolution by the harmonics of augmented notes. All of which suggests the creative dilemma that is further explored in the second track – Standing at the Crossroads – however, not before the Lucumi invocation further establishing Mr Villafranca’s singular “Afro-Cubanism”.
The album’s booklet notes written by Mr Villafranca describe the origin of each of the tracks on the double-disc. Better still is to read the wonderfully written and produced 130+ page book documenting both the very personal journey that led to this recording. The book came after the initial release but is an essential compendium to the two-disc package. An interesting graphic on the inside of the disc package plots the vectors involved in the creation of the musical vortex that is Standing by the Crossroads. It reiterates the fluidity of the musical continuum that is almost always ignored by writers who critique contemporary music. Unsurprisingly Mr Villafranca’s linear and cyclical vectors go back and forth between traditional culture, and stylistic terms such as classical, jazz, Latin Jazz and folklore [done to death by the kind of academic pursuit that often seeks to explain music as if it is something that occurs outside the human body].
Of course, the best way to ‘enjoy the ride’ is to listen avidly to this riveting music which combines Mr Villafranca’s pianism, which is also informed by an almost insolent virtuosity and an eloquence that come from fingers that seem to easily the ebony and ivory and glide across the keyboard in gravity-defying arcs and ellipses; long-limbed, elegantly shaped inventions created by probing single note phrases, adorned – not occasionally – by bold arpeggios and swirling glissandos. All of this is matched by the masterful orchestrations, something we have grown to admire greatly from Mr Villafranca’s past three recordings [including the one under review]. The arrangements cleverly fuse the dramatic and emotive, expressed in the exquisite tone-textures provided by horns and the rumbling thunder of a wall of percussion – both traditional Afro-Cuban [bàtá drums, tumbadoras and barrils, and other percussion instruments peculiar to the Africanised [and Indigenous] music of South America. Horns howl as they mimic the voices of the invisible characters portrayed by the music. Mr Villafranca elaborates on the emotions interacting with each of the soloing instruments – and the ensemble – as the stories about his life unfold.
Two vocalists – Mar Vilaseca with her winged vocalise on Standing at the Crossroads from disc one and Cécile McLorin-Salvant, who is pitch perfect and highly emotive on I Belong to You, which is a most vividly emotional sort of truth-telling love story of Mr Villafranca’s relationship with his ‘Afro-Cubanism’, his links to Lucumi [however loose] and the lyric suggesting his [Mr Villafranca’s] whimsically indifferent relationship to Lucumi spirituality which also seems to [quite strikingly] reference the [opening] verses of the Gospel according to St John The Divine. This reverential subtext underscores the inevitable – albeit somewhat blurred – line between Mr Villafranca’s substantive association with Lucumi [the kind you might experience at Callejón de Hamel in Habana], his spirituality which he claims not to flaunt, but seems to inhabit – if not in life, then certainly in his music, at any rate.
There is profundity in these musical stories the best of which on both discs [H.B.C Habana Blues Chronicle on disc one as well as Keep the Eye on the Bull and Solitaris on disc two] feature saxophonists Vincent Herring and Dayna Stephens as well as trumpeter Freddie Hendrix at their very best. The thundering rhythms of bassist Edward Pérez, drummer Domo Branch and percussionists extraordinaire Jonathan Troncoso and Mauricio Herrera are masterful throughout. Flamenco guitarist Guillermo Guillén makes a star turn on Keep the Eye on the Bull, while guitarists Jonathan Kreisberg illuminates both Standing at the Crossroads and No Man’s Land. But make no mistake, the spotlighted centre-stage belongs to Elio Villafranca and he fills it with his elegant and important musicianship.
Elio Villafranca: Standing by The Crossroads
Music – Disc One 1: H.B.C. Habana Blues Chronicles; 2: Standing by the Crossroads; 3: Panel de Abejas; 4: Yo Soy Lori Obá; 5: I Belong to You; 6: San Isidro – Part I; 7: San Isidro – Part II. Disc Two 1: Son for Freedom; 2: Keep the Eye on the Bull; 3: No Man’s Land; 4: Solitaris; 5: Picture Window.
Musicians – Elio Villafranca: compositions, piano, ekón, guataca, handclaps and coro; Vincent Herring: alto saxophone [Disc One 2, 3, 5 – 7; Disc Two 2, 3, 5], soprano saxophone [Disc One 1, 4], flute [Disc Two 1, 5] and clarinet [Disc Two 4]; Dayna Stephens: tenor saxophone [Disc Two 1 – 4, 6, 7; Disc Two 1 – 5] and bass clarinet [Disc Two 2]; Freddie Hendrix: trumpet and flugelhorn [Disc Two 1]; Jonathan Kreisberg: electric guitar [Disc One 3; Disc Two 3]; Edward Pérez: contrabass; Domo Branch: drums; Jonathan Troncoso: bàtá drums [Disc One 2; Disc Two 3], hand claps and coro; Mauricio Herrera: bàtá drums [Disc Two 2], congas [Disc One 1, 37; Disc Two 2, 5] and cajón [Disc Two 2]. Guest Musicians – Cécile McLorin-Salvant: vocals [Disc One 5]; Mar Vilaseca: vocals [Disc One 2]; Guillermo Guillén: Flamenco-style guitar [Disc Two 2]; assorted percussion [uncredited].
Released – 2023
Label – artistShare [AS 0204]
Runtime – Disc One 42:23 Disc Two 31:06
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