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November 2006

Hilario Duran
From the Heart
Alma Records

Combining elements of bebop, big-band swing and ideas drawn from virtually the entire history of Afro-Cuban jazz (from Santeria rituals to the present day), Cuban pianist Hilario Duran’s music is charged with flamboyance and displays of technical wizardry, yet leavened with a romanticism that’s lush but never bathetic—he wears his emotions on his fingertips, where they belong, instead of on his sleeve.

D’Rivera is on hand to spice up the proceedings on both alto sax and clarinet, and drummer Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez—another longtime Duran collaborator—lives up to his “special guest” billing with his characteristic blend of polyrhythmic adroitness and indefatigable drive, but the real “guest stars” here are Duran’s own arrangements. He has created ensemble lines that dart, weave and kick themselves forward with off-beat punctuations and sidelong rhythmic proddings so forcefully, and with such graceful angularity, that they sound almost like transcriptions of solos from some long-lost session at Minton’s; his voicings, often seasoned with a strong Ellingtonian flavor, are deep and richly colored.

Virtuosity is, of course, the order of the day when Duran sits down at the piano, but unlike many of his contemporaries (even the venerated Valdez), he never lets flash trump feeling. His touch is as supple as it is authoritative—in his hands the piano is a singing drum of variegated voices, and even at his most pyrotechnic there’s a gracefulness to his attack that allows honest emotion to reveal itself alongside the fires he ignites. It’s this courage to confront vulnerability as well as strut prowess that gives Duran’s music its most lasting value and propels it most forcefully—the heart, in the end, is revealed to be the most powerful drum of all.

Originally published in November 2006
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