Hilario Duran is a jazz multi-hyphenate of the highest caliber. Based in Toronto, internationally recognized jazz pianist, composer, arranger, bandleader and college professor, lets his musical heart and soul closely connected to the land of his birth. And to celebrate this, he went to his beloved Cuba to master his latest album Contumbao. It was recorded in a 10-day period with an all-star band. Cuban piano great Chucho Valdés makes a special guest appearance, teaming with Hilario for a thrilling piano duet.
To discuss his epic new production Contumbao, Hilario talks about going to Cuba and working with Chucho Valdés.
Marlena Fitzpatrick: Finally! You recorded Contumbao in your home country Cuba. How was that experience not only as a world renown musician but also as a Cuban in the Diaspora?
Hilario Duran: Traveling to Havana to record this album had a very special and sentimental meaning for me. I was very happy to see and work with friends and musicians whom I have collaborated with for many years, and with other important guests from the Cuban music scene.
I have been based in Toronto for the past two decades, but my musical heart and soul have remained closely connected to my country. That’s why I have continued to collaborate with Cuban musicians. The experience recording the album was wonderful and very exciting. There were ten days of intense, but highly comforting work.
Marlena Fitzpatrick: Even though you’ve collaborated with Cuban musicians, there must’ve been a process to choose which musicians should perform for the album. How did you select the musicians?
Hilario Duran: More than 10 years ago, I recorded my Juno nominated album “Perspectiva Encuentro en la Havana” in Havana. it was recorded with former members of my band Perspectiva. We performed together for many years, first with the Arturo Sandoval band. When Arturo moved to the US, the remaining members of the band continued playing together until my departure to Canada.
My idea for the new album was to return to Havana to record at EGREM studios where I had worked for many years as a pianist, arranger, producer and director. For the new recording, I wanted to create a unique musical and cultural concept with musicians capable of expressing what I was looking for. I asked bassist Jorge Reyes and guitar player Jorge Chicoy if they would join the project first as we had already been working together for many years. I then approached drummer Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez; who knows my playing style very well. He recorded most of my albums, and worked with me and the WDR orchestra performing my music. I also contacted percussionist Changuito because he is one of the best. He worked with me on my album Killer Tumbao in 1996.
One of the tunes I composed for this album is Guajira 2016. Guajira is a musical style from the countryside. It is performed with the sound of the Cuban tres guitar; one of the main instruments in Cuban music. Pancho Amat, who plays on the album, is the best tres guitar player on the island. I also wanted percussionist Jorge Luis Torres “Papiosco,” who travelled with me to Havana, to feature on Contumbao. He was named “The Child Prodigy” by the late Tatagüines, one of the most important Cuban percussionists. “Papiosco” has been performing with me since he arrived in Canada.
Because my style is strongly identified with Cuban percussion, the African drums, the drum beat… I decided to use one of the most important rumba groups in Cuba, “Rumberos de Cuba.” They perform two rumbas on the album and I am very satisfied with their work.
Once in Canada, my producer Peter Cardinali suggested the addition of Cuban musicians based here in Toronto to record a few tracks. I decided to work with bassist Roberto Riveron who has more than 25 years of experience in music. His style is based on the Cuban music that was ingrained in him throughout his childhood. I also connected with singer Alberto Alberto, who had been working with me on various recordings, and young singer and percussionist Brenda Navarrete, and new Alma Records artist, who has a solid foundation of Latin Jazz and Afro-Cuban influences.
Marlena Fitzpatrick: Speaking of styles and brilliant Cuban musicians, I spoke with Alex Lacamoire, Tony Award winning Musical Director. He said something very interesting about Cuban musicians:“I had the opportunity to work with brilliant Cuban musicians, who live and breathe Cuban styles. I felt ‘el sabor.’ To me, it is one of the most rhythmic styles in the world and there’s nothing like it. To be up-close to that and hear that sound is a wonderful feeling. Not to say you can’t find musicians like that here in the US, but the musicians over there are basically untouchable. It was a life-changing experience. In fact, the rhythms are so complex that I once had to stop the groove that the percussion section was playing and ask about the incredibly complicated syncopated beat I had no idea where the “one” was—upbeat or downbeat. It was awesome to get my butt kicked like that. I was floored by the technical prowess and the knowledge that these musicians had.”
Do you think Cuban musicians are “untouchable”? Should up-and-coming musicians be required to explore other genres outside their comfort zone, including traveling to other destinations and experiencing the music firsthand?
Hilario Duran: I don’t think Cuban musicians are untouchable. Cuban music is complex and has its own characteristics but there are more and more musicians around the world playing our music and interacting with Cuban musicians. Also, there are many Cuban musicians who understand jazz and play different genres of music. Of course, it requires hours of study and, if musicians have the opportunity to travel, and interact with and understand other genres of music, it is great. Sometimes for one reason or another it is impossible, but anyone who wants to master how to play our music must travel to Cuba, interact with musicians and learn the Spanish language.
Marlena Fitzpatrick: Musicians must travel to Cuba and interact with their influences. However, many artists can only dream to work with their main inspirations. You worked with Chucho Valdés once again, this time in the appropriately titled “Duo Influenciado.” How that came about?
Hilario Duran: My relationship with Chucho Valdés began a long time ago. Chucho was one of my biggest influences. When I was young, in the mid-1970s Chucho decided to leave the Orquesta Cubana de Música Moderna to work with his legendary group Irakere and he requested that I be his replacement. This honor took me to new and wonderful musical territories. Years later, I started to work with him by writing arrangements for his group. The first time I played with Chucho was around 4 years ago, performing at Koerner Hall with Jane Bunnett and a group of Cuban musicians.
A few years after that performance, I started to work with the WDR orchestra in Cologne and I proposed to Lucas Smith, the director of the orchestra, that we do a concert with two pianos and orchestra with Chucho. Finally, that concert came to fruition in May of this year at the Essen Philharmonic.
When I was finishing my record in Cuba at the beginning of the month of November, I came up with the idea of recording a piano duet piece with Chucho. He was in the midst of his tour with Joe Lovano and one of the stops was in Toronto. I spoke with him about my idea and he kindly accepted. The recording of the tune was on the only day of rest he had in the city. It was a dream come true and I will thank him forever.
Marlena Fitzpatrick: What advice do you have for new jazz musicians, given there’s a new generation of talented artists?
Hilario Duran: The one and most important piece of advice I give to this new generation of talented artists is to be focused on the study of serious classical music! That will give them the necessary skills to be able to play better every day. It is very important and necessary to have lot of passion for this music but mainly for the music in general. They have to listen to a lot of music, lift many solos. Pianists like me have to transcribe trumpet and saxophone solos, or any instrument until they can shape their own style and their own voice.
When you are improvising, breathe deeply and relax first. You have to be creative and spontaneous, express your own feelings, and you have to have something to say. As part of the band, you have to listen to the soloist; you cannot play on your own.