WBGO Radar

Elio Villafranca & The Jass Syncopators: Caribbean Tinge

Pianist Elio Villafranca's album Caribbean Tinge.

Jazz, before it was jazz, was "Jass," and New Orleans was one of the Caribbean's string of pearls. These insights started the Cuban-born pianist Elio Villafranca on a personal journey back to the origins of the musics of his home and adopted homeland.

"I discovered that syncopation was such a big part of this music, jazz, and it was, is, such a big part of Cuban music," he says. "So it was all right there, it was very easy to put together." 

Villafranca formed a new band, The Jass Syncopators, with top players from both genres, and developed the eight-part suite on his new Motema album, Caribbean Tinge.  

The album evokes a time when New Orleans' music was alive with rhythms from Havana, Santo Domingo and Martinique. 

"'Jass,' the way I see it, is really a Caribbean phenomenon," says Vilafranca. "So that’s when I decided to go back and use that word again, and use the word syncopation, because it’s the nature of Caribbean music, and to put them together."

The original and exciting sound of Villafranca's band - and of the master keyboardist himself - was captured live at New York's Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola in 2011. 

The album's opener, "Sunday Stomp At Congo Square," sets the stage for the journey Villafranca invites us to take with him. Early jazz and Caribbean rhythms float amongst each other, and evoke the atmosphere in New Orleans' legendary meeting place for Africans and African descendants in the early twentieth century.

"I just got absorbed by conditions and the times in which this music was created," says Villafranca, describing his research into early jazz after his arrival in the United States in 1996. "New Orleans at the time was considered part of the Caribbean area, even though it’s in this part of this continent, because of all the trade with the islands."

"Last Train To Paris" evokes the journeys of one of Villafranca's piano heroes, Duke Ellington. 

"The way he approached the piano was different from other people," Villafranca says. "The way he slammed the bass, it's almost like he wishes the piano all of a sudden became a drum - and the drum for me is a big thing, a big part of my culture."

   - Tim Wilkins, WBGO digital content producer 

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