When rumba – the pure Afro-Cuban music for voices and percussion – filtered down from the Matanzas to Habana, it was only a matter of time before the visceral rhythms would gently nudge against the more balletic ones of the European contradanzas. In this profusion of Afro-Cuban music with Spanish inflections, a unique rhythmic narrative – and balletic – musical idiom was born, reached its apogee with such great charanga ensembles as Arcaño y sus Maravillas and Orquesta Aragón, both of which came to be inextricably associated with the típica Cuban sound of danzón. While the former introduced a final montuno section and incorporated elements of son, replacing danzón as the most popular dance, the latter group – Orquesta Aragón – remained truer to these roots and grew to becoming the stuff of legend.
In the eight decades since it captured the hearts and mind of Cubans, Orquesta Aragón set the model for larger charanga bands, which expanded the instrumentation of the great soneros with violins and flutes. The ensemble became not only one of the most beloved Cuban music groups, but also an ambassador for Cuban music worldwide. In 2019 the group received a well-earned homage. This was hosted by none other than the incomparable Orlando Valle “Maraca“, who brought members of his own ensemble and several special guests to honour Orquesta Aragón and its members – past and present. This concert took place at Cubadisco 2019 and was superbly captured on DVD.
The concert began with a series of songs performed by Maraca with the vivid opener – “Latin for Two” setting the stage for what was to follow. Maraca’s short opening set segued into a memorable interpretation of Chucho Valdés’ iconic “Mambo Influnciado”. The song lifted the curtain on a great concert to follow, bringing on stage the impossibly brilliant violinist form Orquesta Aragón: Lázaro Dagoberto González, whose solo dazzled with his fiery virtuosity and passages played at breakneck speed, yet with depth of emotion – some of it wailing and keening in the upper registers of his instrument. It is followed by a breathtaking solo from trumpeter Mayquel González who, with his unique, sidelong embouchure and phraseology evocative of the great Jazz trumpeters Woody Shaw and Freddie Hubbard, is among the generation of great young Cuban musicians blazing a new trail in contemporary music on the island.
His solo was followed with an equally brilliant one by saxophonist Michel Herrera, whose fleet-fingered solo was full of flaming phrases that burned up and down the saxophone’s registers. Mr Herrera made way for Alejandro Falcón, who had the “big” shoes of the song’s composer to fill; something he not only filled to distinction, but brought his own silvery touch to the shimmering solo. Maraca himself shows to be in fine form, playing with passion, grace and an unquenchable fire throughout this song – and throughout the entire set. His rhythm section comprising bassist Fabricio Pereira, drummer Martín Alejandro Chávez Báez and percussionist José Julián Morejón Pino bring much colour, and a wall of rhythmic architecture to this music too. Maraca’s group also includes pianist Yadasny José Puntillo Herrera, a magnificent technician and interpreter – who is featured on “Latin for Two” and “Danzón Barroco”.
The second half of the concert [after “Mambo Influenciado”] was given to the great ensemble Orquesta Aragón, in whose honour the concert was hosted. The music was familiar to the rapt and excited audience not only because of the longevity of the group and its classic songs, but because the music of Orquesta Aragón – after 80 years – is now part of the heart and soul of its dyed-in-the-wool Cuban fans of several generations. This was clear not only from the audience reactions to each song no sooner than it began, but also by the manner in which they reacted to the music, participated in it, and cheers their musical heroes on. In this regard, vocalists Juan Carlos Villegas Alfonso and the late Sixto Llorente Terry did a splendid job of keeping the audience enthralled with their narratives. Guest singers – the seductive Osdalgia – especially on the captivating bolero “Tú mi Delirio”, the ever-eloquent Yaima Sáez on “Son al Son” and Yumurí ever the crowd-pleaser, particularly on “Ven Morena”; they all brought the house down with their magical vocalastics.
However, it was clear that the evening belonged not only to these musicians, but principally to Orquesta Aragón. The ensemble was – and continues to be – supreme creators and interpreters of Cuban musical culture. Its members are consistently brilliant. Throughout the concert the players – especially the instrumental soloists and vocalists contribute with great fire and passion, which in turn produces remarkable results, in terms of the sumptuous and seduction of danzón that has come to be inextricably associated with generations of the legendary Orquesta Aragón. And there was no better experience of everything that this great ensemble stands for than on “Ven Morena” and on the pinnacle of the concert, the absolutely riveting rendition of “Sabrosona”.
Track list – 1: Latin for Two; 2: Barroco; 3: Mambo Influnciado; 4: Los 80; 5: Calmito y Marañón; 6: Guajira con tumbao; 7: Tú mi delirio; 8: Ven Morena; 9: Son al son; 10: Pare cochero; 11: Sabrosona
Personnel – Orquesta Aragón – Rafael Lay Bravo: Director, vocals and violin; Lázaro Dagoberto González: violin [3 – 11]; Eric Labant Lay: violin [4 – 11]; Airiel González Arjona: violin [4 – 11]; Rafael Antonio Lay Sánchez: violin [4 – 11]; Eduardo Rubio Pérez: flute [4 – 11]; Guillermo García Valdés: percussion [4 -11]; Orlando Pérez Montero: piano [4 – 11]; Roberto Espinosa Rodriguez: bass [4 -11]; Noberto Consuegra Terry: percussion [4 -11]; José Palma Cuesta: percussion [4 – 11]; Juan Carlos Villegas Alfonso: vocals [4 – 11]; Sixto Llorente Terry: vocals [4 – 11]; Orlando Valle “Maraca”: Music Director and flute [1 – 3, 6 – 11]; Fabricio Pereira: contrabass [1 – 3]; Yadasny José Puntillo Herrera: piano [1 – 3]; Martín Alejandro Chávez Báez: drums [1 – 3]; José Julián Morejón Pino: percussion [ 1 – 3] – with Special Guests – Alejandro Falcón: piano [3, 10, 11]; Michel Herrera: tenor saxophone [1, 3] and alto saxophone ; Mayquel González: trumpet [1 – 3, 10]; José Loyola: flute ; Osdalgia Lesmes: vocals [7, 10, 11]; Moisés Valle Yumurí: vocals [8, 11]; Yaima Sáez: vocals [9, 10]
Released – 2019
Label – Producciones Abdala
Runtime – 1:21:43
Hilario Durán and David Virelles at Koerner Hall in Toronto
On Thursday, October 13, 2022, representing two generations of Cuban Piano Masters, Hilario Durán and David Virelles got together at Koerner Hall, one of the most magnificent concert venues in Toronto. They were celebrating the release (in Canada) of their new recording Front Street Duets (Alma Records), a project they started working on at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
Both artists were extremely happy of releasing their duet album after these past two years of the unimaginable worldwide health crisis. They were also excited to be in Toronto, and for being able to accommodate their busy schedules to perform their music in front of a very enthusiastic audience. Durán and Virelles expressed their utmost respect and admiration for each other. David from an early age considered Hilario as one of his musical heroes, a musical giant and influential figure in Cuba, in Canada and abroad. Hilario considers David as one of the most important Cuban pianist of his generation, a big star shining globally, from the highly competitive musical scene in New York.
The concert got started started with Epistrophy, the first tune copyrighted by Thelonious Monk, followed by Sophisticated Lady / In A Sentimental Mood, two compositions by Duke Ellington. Next, Durán and Virelles performed four tunes from their new album: 1. Danza Lucumí, (beautifully arranged by Virelles), a song written by Alejandro García Caturla, a Cuban composer who together with Amadeo Roldán, are considered the leaders of Afro-cubanismo, a nationalist musical trend that incorporates Afro-Cuban songs, rhythms, and dances. 2. Challenge, a new composition by Durán. 3. La Malanga (also arranged by Virelles), a composition by Calixto Varona, one of the most important composers from Santiago de Cuba from the XIX century. 4. Guajira For Two Pianos, the first track on the album Front Street Duet, a fiery composition written by Durán.
The first set came to an end with Airegin (an anadrome of Nigeria), a jazz standard composed by American saxophonist Sonny Rollins in 1954.
The second part of the concert started with a solo performance by David Virelles, Canción Estudio, composed by José Antonio “Ñico” Rojas, a prominent Cuban composer and guitarist, considered as one of the founders of the style of Cuban song called filin. Then it was Durán’s turn for an inspired solo performance of Autumn Nocturne (a notable composition written by Russian-born Josef Myrow with Kim Gannon). Durán had previously recorded this tune on his 1999 Justin Time Records release Habana Nocturna, a superb album that feature acclaimed saxophonist, flautist and bandleader Jane Bunnett, and drummer extraordinaire Horacio “El Negro” Hernández.
Next, both pianists performed a set of four pieces written by Hilario Durán for the recording Front Street Duets. 1. David’s Tumbao, a composition dedicated to David Virelles. Durán is well known for his fiery tumbao style when he’s playing. 2. Punto Cubano #1, inspired on the genre of Cuban music known as punto guajiro or punto cubano, a poetic art with music that became popular in the western and central regions of Cuba in the 17th century and consolidated as a genre in the 18th century. 3. Santos Suárez’s Memories pays tribute to the Havana neighbourhood where Durán grew up, where he fell in love with the piano and became a musician. It brings back cherished memories involving his upbringing, his family and close friends. 4. Milonga For Cuba, a very special tribute dedicated to the people who protested in Havana last summer 2021.
For the encore, Durán and Virelles interpreted a wonderful rendition of Body And Soul, a popular song and jazz standard written in 1930 with music by Johnny Green and lyrics by Edward Heyman, Robert Sour and Frank Eyton. Body and Soul is the track that closes the album Front Street Duets, and also brought to an end a tremendous musical night at Koerner Hall in Toronto.
Photographs by Danilo Navas
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