Lots of experiences can help push a musicians to greater heights during their artistic careers, but nothing beats the opportunity to play with accomplished veterans. Private studies, individual practice, and time with classic recordings all give the musician important tools, but the limited interaction associated with these activities only yields certain results. Time on the bandstand with top musicians creates a school unto itself, full of unbelievable benefits. Musicians get immediate feedback on their performances – from direct conversation to telling eye contact, a constant stream of critique exists. Young musicians get to watch their more experience colleagues perform regularly, allowing them to get ideas and learn new techniques. There are many ways for a musician to mature artistically, but extensive time with a role model guarantees a path to a successful future.
Pianist Hilario Durán followed his musical inspirations diligently, eventually earning himself a spot among some of Havana’s most important artists. Durán’s father was an active musician during the filin movement of the forties, and even though he stopped performing, his love for music never left the Durán household. The family’s large record collection exposed Durán to a diverse repertoire of music, ranging from classical to jazz, movie soundtracks, and more. Once the family acquired a piano, Durán fell deeply in love with the instrument, spending all his time playing it. He took lessons with a number of teachers before attending the Amadeo Roldan National Conservatory Of Music for further studies. He received a strictly classical training at the conservatory and spend all of his free moments pursuing his love for jazz by “lifting” solos from recordings. Mandatory military service pulled Durán away from his studies, but kept him in music as he played both piano and clarinet in the military band. When he completed his service, he returned to Havana’s music scene, only to find a limited place for jazz performance in the city. The government still saw jazz as the “music of the enemy,” but had allowed for the creation of the Orquesta Cubana de Musica Moderna. The initial group included Chucho Valdes, Carlos Emilio, Enrique Pla, Carlos Del Puerto, and other musicians that would eventually leave the orquesta to form Irakere. Once they left, Valdes recommended Durán for the piano spot in the Orquesta Cubana de Musica Moderna, opening a major door into a larger career. Durán work with the orquesta led to greater notoriety, and eventually regular work in the sessions of EGREM studios. He worked as a pianist, composer, and producer in the studios, contributing his vast skills to a wide array of sessions. On the side, he co-led the group Los De Siempre with vocalist Demetrio Muñiz, finding his place among the Latin Jazz world. All these experiences prepared Durán for the next phase in his career that would make him a worldwide musical figure.
Duran found his place among Havana’s top musicians, working with some of the most influential artists in modern Cuban Jazz. His future still held great things; he would still travel the world playing as a sideman with Arturo Sandoval and Jane Bunnett and leader in his own right. In Part One of our interview with Durán, we spent time talking about the influence of his father upon his love of music, his love for the piano and early studies, his time in the military band, and much more. In Part Two of our interview, we discuss the Orquesta Cubana de Musica Moderna, his work in the EGREM studios, some influential mentors, and more.
LATIN JAZZ CORNER: You mentioned the Orquesta Cubana de Musica Moderna, a group that I’ve always associated with the band members from Irakere. You replaced Chucho when he left the group, right?
HILARIO DURÁN: I replaced Chucho when he put together Irakere. This Orquesta was great; it was the greatest. All those experienced musicians reunited there and they played music from Stan Kenton to Glenn Miller. They influenced all the musicians of my generation. The style of this orquesta was the style that caught me from the beginning; it was my first influence of listening to a big band. This is the style that I try to imitate when I write big band charts – the big sound of those guys.
Armando Romeu and Rafael Somavilla, they were influenced by Duke Ellington and Count Basie – this big, full sounding orchestra. That’s the sound that I have in mind, so that’s the sound that I want to represent in my charts.
LJC: I’ve only heard the older recordings of the Orquesta with Chucho, Paquito, and all the Irakere musicians. After you replaced Chucho, who was in the band?
HD: I replaced Chucho, and they all left to do Irakere. Paquito wasn’t in the orchestra really; he got fired two years before for political reasons. Arturo was there, Carlos Emilio was there, Enrique Pla was there, Chucho Valdes, Carlos Del Puerto. When I replaced Chucho, they all left the band and they were replaced by other musicians.
This seat was so hot when I sat in there and I was so inexperienced. I couldn’t sight read two bars. But Chucho saw something in me; I don’t know what he saw in me. He pushed those guys to put me into this band; he trusted me. So they put me in there. I started playing and I tried to do my best. It was a big change for me.
LJC: Did you know Chucho well?
HD: Yea, I knew Chucho very well. He’s my mentor. He was mentor through all those early years. He taught me a lot – how to play, how to comp with the orchestra. I had no idea how to comp jazz, bolero, or anything. I just wanted to improvise. I was very young; I wasn’t experienced. I went there and in this orchestra I learned how to play and comp pop music, bolero, tango, samba, and all these styles of music. I learned to improvise too, of course.
A person that I will be in debt to for my life was the great drummer Guillermo Barretto. He was the one that taught me so much. He was very patient, and he taught me how to play. He even taught me how to voice harmonies on the piano. He played drums, but he was one of those guys that had a gift. He had perfect pitch, so he was one of the guys that fixed notes in the orchestra. He fixed harmonies, so he knew a lot about harmonies. He taught me how to voice a C Major in the orchestra. He taught me how I had to fill in when I was accompanying voice; he taught me how to fill in there. It was really a great experience.
It was also the first time that I started watching charts and scores. Every time that I listened to something interesting in the orchestra, I waited. When no one was around, I went to the podium and I watched the scores. That’s how I learned how to write charts. Bit by bit. I also started writing some charts with this orchestra. I wrote some of the ideas that I had, because there were a lot of ideas in my head. When I first started writing for this orchestra, all of my charts sounded very bad. They sounded harsh. I tried to transcribe all the stuff that I play on the piano onto the orchestra. It’s not like that, it’s different. That was the way that I learned to write big band charts, and for other instrumental combinations too.
LJC: Sometime around there, you started working a lot in EGREM studios – what were you doing there?
\HD: Yes, I was working in the EGREM studios, first as a musician. I first started working as a pianist, and then later I started writing charts too. I also started producing for all the greatest singers in Havana. I started writing charts for Omara Portuondo, Silvio Rodriguez, Miriam Ramos, Elena Burke, and all those singers.
LJC: Were there any sessions that you remember that really stood out as exceptional?
HD: All of the sessions . . . they were great. I was working with all those great directors like Rafael Somavilla. I learned how to conduct orchestras from them. Watching those guys like Rafael Somavilla and Armando Romeu conducting – I learned so much from all those guys. I watched how they gave cues and I learned a lot. Paquito D’Rivera was also there producing records. Once in a while, I got hired to play on those sessions too. Every session you learned something.
LJC: Was there any time for you to lead your own groups outside your studio work?
HD: Yea, when I was in the orquestra, I started my first band. My first band that I put together was Los De Siempre. It was a 13-piece band with three trumpets, two trombones, one tenor, and a rhythm section.
LJC: What type of music were you playing?
HD: We were playing mostly Latin Jazz. It was me and then there was another guy writing for this small band – Demetrio Muñiz, the former musical director of Buena Vista Social Club. He used to be the lead singer in this band and he also wrote charts for this band. We were playing with this band until 1981, when I got a call from Arturo Sandoval. He left Irakere, so he called me to play piano and help him with the direction of the band.
Make sure that you check out Part One of our interview with Durán, where we talk about his childhood immersed in music, his studies in classical music and jazz, as well as his miliary service in Cuba.
Come back soon to see Part Three, where we’ll discuss Durán’s time with Arturo Sandoval, the creation of Perspetiva, his connection to Jane Bunnett, and much more.
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