This program offers dual debuts of Sherman Irby's Journey Through Swing (at 7pm Feb. 20 and 9:30pm Feb. 21) and Elio Villafranca's Music of the Caribbean (at 9:30pm Feb. 20 and 7pm Feb. 21).
Sherman Irby's Journey Through Swing showcases an ensemble of first-call East Coast musicians exploring the evolution of swing. "Jazz music is a language that speaks directly to the soul," Irby explains. "Just as the English language has many different dialects, jazz has its own various styles relating to its home regions. We will explore the swing styles associated with New Orleans, Texas, Kansas City, Chicago, the West Coast, and New York."
Born and raised in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra alto saxophonist has worked with gospel great James Cleveland and jazz artists Johnny O'Neal, Roy Hargrove, Marcus Roberts, Betty Carter, Elvin Jones, and Papo Vazquez. He is a member of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and a board member for the CubaNOLA Collective.
For his Journey Through Swing, Irby says, "We are going to start with the birthplace of jazz, New Orleans, travel up and down the Mississippi, take Route 66 to the West Coast, then head back to New York, the jazz corner of the world."
Meanwhile, the alternating A Side, B Side program is the world premiere of Elio Villafranca's Music of the Caribbean, digging deep into the roots of the Afro-Caribbean diaspora. In 2014, Villafranca received the first Jazz at Lincoln Center Millenium Swing Award (along with Jon Batiste and C_cile McLorin Salvant). His new CD Caribbean Tinge received international acclaim, and just recently, Villafranca joined the faculty at The Juilliard School. He has made great strides since moving to New York City from Cuba.
"There has always been an interest in Cuban music," explains Villafranca, "[and] one reason is the close proximity. Afro-Cuban music has a lot to do with American jazz. Jazz is a lot wider when you think about the roots.
"This is my biggest work to date. I have been integrating my roots of Cuban Congolese tradition that I grew up with as a child. Then there is my training in classical music and also my inspiration and interest in the Caribbean diaspora.
"Since I come from a Congolese area (the Tambor Yuka community of Cuba), I wanted to explore those traditions in a broader way." To help Villafranca carry out his dream is an all-star band that consists of Jon Faddis (trumpet), Leyla McCalla (vocals), Vincent Herring (alto sax/flute), Steve Turre (trombone), Greg Tardy (tenor sax), Michele Wright (bass clarinet/clarinet), Gregg August (bass), Willie Jones III (drums), and Arturo Stable (percussion).
Villafranca's world premiere, Cinqu_ _ Suite of the Caribbean, is inspired by the African slave who led the rebellion aboard the ship Amistad in 1839. "The inspiration for this suite is from Cinqu_. He was an African slave brought to Cuba. I chose five islands, five stories: Cuba, Puerto Rico, Haiti, Jamaica, and Santo Domingo. This suite has the full, wide range of my upbringing as a musician."
Villafranca breaks down the suite into several parts: 1. Cinqu_ and The Capture; 2. Trouble Waters (the revolt and control of the ship); 3. Maluagda: La Buria de Los Congos: Home (the happy memories of the African slaves brought to Cuba); 4. Indigo: Mesi Bondye (Indigo Plantations were at the center of the Haitian revolution of 1791); 5. The Night at Bois Caiman: Burn the Field Down (the 1730 Jamaican slave revolt led by Cudjoe); and 6. Comparsa (the Cuban manifestation of Carnival).
"Comparsa is messy and anybody can participate," says Villafranca with a smile. "If the audience would get up and dance, that would be awesome. I also want my musicians to move and dance with the Comparsa. When it happens out on the street, people are constantly walking and moving. It is almost like a New Orleans second line. Everybody must participate; that is key. The Afro-Cuban tradition and the New Orleans jazz tradition are very similar because they were Africans. This developed from their lack of freedom to express themselves. The Congolese had a secret way to make a mockery of their owners through music, since they were forbidden to communicate otherwise."
Add to this emotional outpouring, trumpeter Jon Faddis as a special guest artist to the program, and it will be a powerful experience. "Jon and I both are at Juilliard, and I've never played with him before. He will be perfect because some of the trumpet parts of my suite are very high notes, in the upper register. In Cuban music, one thing that stands out is the trumpet and the high register of the instrument."
"As a performer, what I try to give to the audience is an experience that they have not been exposed to before. We will play jazz, but we also add the music of the streets: the drums and the dance."