Essential Albums Revisited
I thought that this Justin Time recording Habana Nocturna (1999) by Hilario Durán was going to be all-but-forgotten. I also thought, for no rational reason that it was going to be a disc of two halves like the old two-sided LP. But I was wrong. In fact, it is more of a continuous journey – and a most rewarding, artfully conceived one it is too. Habana Nocturna is the third disc that Hilario Durán made for Jim West’s Montréal label, but it is one that sling-shot the pianist into national prominence. It also reinforced my belief that Hilario Durán was one of Cuba’s most accomplished composers bar none.
All these songs were relatively new at the time. I love Hilario Durán’s crisp articulation and lightly pedalled bustle in every piece, especially in the explosive opener, “U.M.M.G. – Upper Manhattan Medical Group”, with its arresting, imperious opening and wonderful jeu perlé in its final page. Mr. Durán gives early notice that he has little inclination to bathe the passagework in an impressionistic haze, as many players of his stylistic bent do, choosing to emphasise the virtuosity of the writing (throughout) and reminding us of how much he has learnt from classical pianists such as Chopin and Liszt. No less did I enjoy “Autumn Nocturne”, which occupies a different sound-world.
Here the piano becomes a painter as elsewhere, evoking places and events, and Hilario Durán reacts accordingly to his musical doppelgänger (on the disc), Jane Bunnett, who also – like the ingenious pianist – plays with beguiling, warm sensuality preferable to my ears to the chilly objectivity of many a Cuban pianist, whom I shall not name here. “Moonface (Habana Nocturne)” is truly the net et vif with some hailstones in the downpour. And the blazing end of “Song for Argentina” leads us, after a pause, quietly, naturally into the parallel sound world of “Like Someone In Love”, with its dramatically woven major and minor variations, and which becomes the dénouement of an album that has certainly become a classic of its time. And it will remain so for a long time to come.
Like many of Hilario Durán’s albums, in addition to being masterfully constructed on a strong, Afro-Cuban rhythmic base, there is more than a hint of the labyrinthine counterpoint that continues to inform the music of this Cuban genius, together with the classically inspired textures that are woven like silk into his fine compositions. This is where he breaks with Gonzalo Rubalcaba (and other pianists of his generation) and aligns himself more with Emiliano Salvador, whose works are given more to the proclivities of the late Romantics. With such beauty not only obvious in his playing, but also in his compositions, I have openly wondered at his lack of public adulation.
Hilario Durán’s music has never courted popularity with the public and his name has never been one that sells records. More’s the pity. Habana Nocturna is the kind of work that screams stylistic authority and, to my mind, brings it to the forefront of important piano recordings. It should have, in 1999, established the pianist as someone with a luminous reputation, accessible to anyone who had an appreciation of piano music at its finest. His relative obscurity in the pantheon of Afro-Cuban pianists speaks also to lack of historical understanding on the part of Canadian and American audiences. I shan’t say anything about good taste as that would certainly get me going…
Track List – U.M.M.G. – Upper Manhattan Medical Group; Autumn Nocturne; Drume Negrita; Harlem Nocturne; Esto Sí Tiene Que Ver (You Must See This); Moonface (Habana Nocturna; Lada 78; Song For Argentina; Like Someone In Love
Personnel – Hilario Durán: piano; Jane Bunnett: flute and soprano saxophone; Larry Cramer: trumpet; Roberto Occhipinti: acoustic bass; Horacio “El Negro” Hernández: batá drum and drums; Rodolfo Valdés Terry: congas; Hugh Marsh: violin; Marie Bérard: violin; Steve Dann: viola; David Heatherington: cello.
Released – 1999
Label – Justin Time Records
Runtime – 1:07:51