This is pianist/composer Elio Villafranca’s most ambitious project yet: an extended, five-movement tone poem honoring the musical legacy of the Afro-Caribbean archipelago (the piece’s full title when it debuted at Jazz at Lincoln Center in 2015 was “Cinque – Suite of the Caribbean”). That legacy, of course, is inextricably intertwined with the struggle against imperialism and slavery (Joseph Cinque, who led the famous rebellion aboard the Cuban slave ship La Amistad in 1839, is the subject of the first movement). It’s also inseparable from the African-rooted spiritualist traditions that continue to sustain the descendants of the people who were originally brought to the islands as slaves. Accentuating these connections, Villafranca’s suite is interspersed with field recordings of traditional chants, rituals, and songs, conducted at various locations in Cuba, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. Historical context is further established through introductory narrations by WQXR radio host Terrance McKnight; a more in-depth perspective can be gleaned from Ned Sublette’s superb liner notes.
Musically, the obvious point of reference is Ellington—specifically such orchestral works as “Afro-Eurasian Eclipse” and “The Far East Suite.” Like the maestro, Villafranca invokes indigenous traditions through the judicious use of percussion and woodwind/brass tonalities, as well as the rhythmic and harmonic textures of his and other soloists’ statements (Steve Turre; Wynton Marsalis—predictably flawless, and also predictably somewhat detached from the grittier emotions implied by the storyline; Greg Tardy; and vocalist Leyla McCalla are among those featured). In both his playing and his composing, Villafranca summons powerful emotions through understatement: colorations, shadings, subtly crafted dynamics.