Born in Cuba and classically trained, pianist Elio Villafranca has long offered a unique take on Latin jazz, foregoing the reliance on percussion pyrotechnics for a more fully integrated blend of his varied interests. That’s not to say that he can’t bring the fire when it’s called for, as he does on “Mambo Vivo,” a lively tribute to Pérez Prado on his new CD, which was recorded live in 2012 at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola.
But more often he combines elements of jazz and Afro-Caribbean music with the architectural insight born of his classical training, which leads to more intriguing combinations and juxtapositions. On Caribbean Tinge, Villafranca imports rhythms from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba and filters them through three different permutations of his Jass Syncopators ensemble. That band brings stellar jazz players together with a trio of percussionists to fuse passion with complexity.
The disc opens with “Sunday Stomp at Congo Square,” setting trilling boppish horns against a stomping bomba rhythm and forcing soloists to navigate between bomba and rapid-fire changes. Greg Tardy’s husky tenor opens “Last Train to Paris,” a twilit ballad that follows the French influence in Caribbean culture back to its source at the Seine. The title track is a breakneck blues driven by Lewis Nash, which features trumpeter Terell Stafford parrying with roiling Puerto Rican rhythms, while “Two to Tango” features Tardy’s subtle insinuations over a slow, sultry tango. The album’s centerpiece is the 12-minute “Flower by the Dry River,” with a probing, delicate Villafranca solo atop a subtle weave of rhythms, slowly growing in intensity and intricacy.