A strong Latin Jazz bandleader carries a specific set of tools that guide them through their multiple responsibilities; the best bandleaders make these skills look natural, but they are actually learned over time. Any good leader spends years, and sometimes decades, as a sideman behind multiple artists. They work hard, watch the masters, learn the necessary inside information, and take notes about their role within the group. The more diverse experiences that any young sideman encounters will broaden their bag of tricks and ready them more completely to work as a leader. These early experiences solidify a bandleader’s artistic ideas, teach them how to run a group, and prepare them for a long and productive career.
Pianist Hilario Durán spent his early musical life filling his time with rich artistic experiences, readying himself for the time when he would step into his role as a bandleader. Inspired by his father’s deep connection with music, Durán found himself irresistibly drawn to the piano, eventually landing at the Amadeo Roldan National Conservatory. He dived deeply into classical studies at the school, building his prodigious technique while spending his free time focused on jazz and improvisation. After graduation, Durán did his mandatory three years in the Cuban military, playing both piano and clarinet in the army band, and upon release, he quickly found work on Havana’s lively music scene. Recognizing Durán’s immense talent, Chucho Valdés recommended him for the role of pianist in the Orquesta Cubana de Musica Moderna. This high profile gig led to steady work as a pianist, producer, and arranger in EGREM studios, and eventually, a job with the virtuosic trumpet player Arturo Sandoval. Durán toured the world with Sandoval’s band, and once the trumpet player defected to the United States, Durán continued to perform with the musicians as Perspectiva. Several years later, drummer Guillermo Barretto introduced Durán to saxophonist Jane Bunnett, who employed the pianist for her album Spirits of Havana. As Durán became an essential piece of Bunnett’s band, she encouraged him to record as a solo artist. Bunnett and her husband Larry Cramer helped Durán record three very different albums – Francisco’s Song, an album without percussion, the Havana based Killer Tumbao, and Habana Nocturna, a fully orchestrated Latin Jazz album. As Durán reputation grew, he moved his family to Toronto, where he became an essential part of the music scene. His collaboration with local bassist Roberto Occhipinti led to the trio album with drummer Horacio Hernandez, New Danzon. Durán returned to his love of big band Latin Jazz on From the Heart, a rousing collection of pieces from a full big band captured on CD and DVD. Durán’s 2010 album Motion focuses upon his trio with Occhipinti and drummer Mark Kelso, delivering a strong representation of original compositions and arrangements that confirms the pianist’s role as an important role model in modern Latin Jazz.
Durán spent many years applying his vast musical talents to the support of other artists, a fact that prepared him thoroughly for his current role. As a bandleader, Durán has asserted his voice as a composer and soloist, as well as shined the spotlight on the skills of his able sidemen. In Part One of our interview with Durán, we looked at the influence of his father, his studies at the Amadeo Roldan National Conservatory, and his time in the military band. In Part Two of our interview, we discussed the impact of the Orquesta Cubana de Musica Moderna, his connection to Chucho Valdés, and work in EGREM studios. Part Three of our interview focused upon Durán’s job as a pianist in Sandoval’s band, the group’s continuation as Perspectiva, and his association with Bunnett. The final piece of our interview digs into Durán’s career as a bandleader, looking at all his released, including the 2010 album Motion.
LATIN JAZZ CORNER: Your first three albums are so very different. Francisco’s Song didn’t really have percussion on it and then you went back to Havana on Killer Tumbao with all those great musicians from Cuba and then you had the strings on Habana Nocturna – why were you changing things so much?
HILARIO DURAN: What I hear just depends on the vision that I wanted. I tried different formats to make me work in different ways and to represent the music in different ways. Larry Cramer and Jane (Bunnett) helped me put together all those albums. It was just like that.
Francisco’s Song had no percussion, which was a great idea. We tried to find a drummer for this album, but we couldn’t find one. We couldn’t make a deal with any of the drummers, so we finally decided to do it without drums. It was a great idea . . . I consider it a great idea. I worked with Alain Caron on bass, Jane Bunnett on flute, and Sonny Greenwich on guitar. It was great to work with Alain Caron. We did a version of Giant Steps and he really caught me on that. He plays so good on that, it’s incredible; it’s like drinking water. Sonny Greenwich is a great guitar player – he’s very original and he’s got a unique sound.
LJC: When you go onto Killer Tumbao, you’ve got some incredible Cuban musicians – Dafnis Prieto, Jorge Reyes, and more. At that point, how would you say that jazz in Havana had changed?
HD: It’s always changing; it’s developing every day. I don’t know . . . there’s so much good music there. The people keep immigrating all the time, but there are still so many great musicians. When one immigrates, then there’s still another one working on the scene there. It’s like a music store, there’s so much development of music. I don’t know why, but it’s great.
LJC: Your album in 2004, New Danzon, was a trio album. When I first heard that album, it was the first time Roberto Occhipinti caught my ear, who seems like an amazing player. How did you meet him and start working?
HD: I met him right after I moved here. When I started working in Toronto for the first time, I was introduced to him by Jane. Then we started working together. We started working in a small place here in downtown Toronto every Thursday; it’s called College Street Bar. We started jamming every Thursday. After that I started working with Jane and I recommended him. I didn’t know that he played Cuban music so well at first, but then I recommended him to play with Jane’s band. So we started working together for a few years with Jane in her band. We did Ritmo and Soul and then a couple of more albums.
LJC: You also had Horacio Hernandez on New Danzon. Was he someone that you had known from Cuba or did you meet him after you moved?
HD: I knew him from Cuba, from a long time ago. The first time I met him was in the EGREM studios. This is quite a funny story. After a few years working in EGREM, I was more experienced as a producer. I started producing an album with a singer Donato Proveda – he lives in Miami now, he has a great career as a singer and composer. I started producing this record with Donato Proveda and I started hiring the band. I asked who he had for a drummer; Donato showed me Horacio and told me, “This is the drummer.” I didn’t know Horacio at this time. I called Donato in private and I said, “Listen, this is the work of very experienced musicians. You can not call an amateur here to record an album.” I didn’t want to work with him. I said, “You can not call people that don’t have experience, don’t read music, and such. So, please, we have to hire another guy.” But Donato said, “No, no, I want this guy.” After I complained and we had a discussion, I said, “O.K., I will agree to playing with this guy.” He recorded and he did so well – he was amazing!
After that, we started working together. A while later, he started working with Gonzalo (Rubalcaba); he did all these records with Gonzalo. He had a great career with him until he moved to Italy. It was a year later that I encountered him again, because Jane Bunnett hired him to do some gigs in the States. We started working together again, and then he recorded on my album Habana Nocturna. We also couple of small albums that were not jazz albums; we did a mambo record also. It wasn’t until Roberto gave me the idea to do a trio record that we called Horacio and did New Danzon.
LJC: The next year, you worked with Perspectiva again on Encuentro En La Habana.
HD: Yes, I went down to Havana to reunite with my former colleagues, my friends from Perspectiva – Jorge Reyes on bass, Jorge Luis Chicoy on guitar, and Reynaldo Valera on congas. We did some tracks in Havana; there were some beautiful tracks on this album. Then we brought the recording here to Toronto and we called Ernesto Simpson, another member of Perspectiva here. We overdubbed Ernesto Simpson here on two tracks. Then we added percussionists Pedro Martinez and Emilio del Monto and the saxophonist Roman Feliu.
HD: I changed it a lot. I told you that during the time of Perspectiva, I was obsessed with keyboards. I had this guitar-keyboard thing; I just wanted to play that, I didn’t want to play piano. I wanted to play this and program synthesizers – I spent three years with that! So it’s quite different. Some of the tracks from the original Perspectiva days sound awful to me, but some of them sound great. There’s one track on YouTube that’s really something amazing that I did at that time.
LJC: Do you think that you’ll ever go back to Perspectiva again? Is that a project that you’ll do in the future?
HD: I don’t know . . . we could probably do another record. If I could find someone to sponsor us with some money to record with these guys again, I would do it. I would be very happy to do it. I love those guys. We were working for so many years. Jorge Reyes worked with me in the Orquesta Cubana de Musica Moderna for a number of years. After that, we played with Arturo for ten years. After that, we played together with Perspectiva for four years. I’ve known Jorge Reyes since high school in Havana, since the national school of music. So with those guys, I’ve spent almost half of my life playing, sharing awful rooms in Europe, and touring all over the world. So we’ve shared a lot; we love each other a lot.
LJC: In 2006, you released From the Heart, which is an amazing album and DVD. You mentioned before how you were really influenced by the big sound of the Orquesta Cubana de Musica Moderna; what were you trying to do with your own big band project?
HD: I’ve had other influences because I’ve lived out of Cuba for a number of years. It’s quite different how much influence you get here out of Cuba. You get so many things when you change your way of life. That changes the way your music sounds. But still I have that sound in my head – the Orquesta Cubana de Musica Moderna. That’s the sound I want to represent in this album. It’s my tribute to that time and my tribute to those Cuban conductors. They were the greatest that I’ve played with ever. It’s my tribute to them and a tribute to that sound that I left there in Havana. But it also includes a lot of musical influences that I have here in Toronto and North America. I combined both things.
LJC: The band seems really tight and together – is that a band that works there in Toronto?
HD: Mostly the band works here. We did a gig last month at the Toronto Jazz Festival. But we haven’t been playing much lately.
LJC: Is that a group that you might record with again or tour with?
HD: Not for a while. I’m working now with a 13-piece band. It’s a smaller version of that band. I got hired to play at the Cultural Olympic Games in Vancouver this year. So I reunited a 13-piece orchestra. That’s the orchestra that I have been working with lately also.
LJC: The new album, Motion, is a trio album, but this time, you have Mark Kelso playing drums. How did he get involved?
HD: We started working with this trio about five years ago. This is basically the result of all these years of working together. We did a tour across Canada in 2008. After that, we decided to put together our repertoire and go into the studio. That’s what we did.
LJC: There’s some tracks on there that really stand out. One of them is the opening track, “It’s Only Seven.” It takes that very Cuban groove and puts it in 7/4. How do you approach writing a turn like that and keeping a traditional sound?
HD: I love 7/4. It’s a very comfortable time signature for me; it’s really, really comfortable. It’s so comfortable that I’m trying to avoid writing music in this time signature. I think that my life is in 7/4. It’s just like that – on this track, I tried to represent all the styles of music from Cuban to straight-ahead jazz to straight cha cha cha. That’s what I tried to represent in this tune. It’s very much an experiment.
LJC: Another piece that stands out is “Havana City.” You’ve got the strings and the bata in addition to your trio. What’s different for you in there – how do the strings bring out another side to your playing?
HD: I recorded this tune for the first time when I went to Havana to record with Perspectiva, about three years before Motion. I decided to record this tune again. I tried to do this with the strings and the voice of Joaquin; he did a great job. I tried to represent the feeling in Havana City right now. All the things that people living there experience – all the struggles, all the happiness, all the suffering. I put this together in this overture. I also mixed it together with all the things of the past life that I had in Havana – all the friends that I left behind and my family, all the places where I used to hang in Havana. I was thinking about all of this, and I tried to put it in this tune.
LJC: “For Emiliano” is another tune that stands out on Motion. I assume that’s for Emiliano Salvador – you really capture a lot of his spirit on that tune . . .
HD: Yea, this is another important guy. Emiliano was one of the craziest guys I ever met, and he was also one of the greatest creators. The same way that Chucho Valdes influenced me a lot, Emiliano also influenced me very much. Chucho Valdes was the Cuban version of Oscar Peterson in Havana; Emiliano Salvador is the Cuban version of Bud Powell. He was a guy that was really into the hardcore jazz scene. He really knew how to swing on the piano. He was also one of the first guys that started experimenting with odd time signatures. That’s why this tune is also in 7/4.
LJC: The other tune on the tune on the album that really pops out at me in “Danza Negra,” the Ernesto Lecuona tune. It’s such a traditional tune, but you do it so differently. How do you find that line between balancing traditional ideas with trying to look ahead?
HD: Since my time with Arturo Sandoval, I’ve always tried to do an arrangement of this tune. Every time I’ve tried to write an arrangement, it’s been difficult. The second part is upbeat, so I don’t know how to represent this so fast. I tried to do it during that time, and then after I left, I didn’t do it anymore. Roberto Occhipinti, he gave me the idea to work this tune with a New Orleans groove. We put the New Orleans groove behind the song and combined it with a version of the danzon.
These two grooves, they have a common point in history of Cuban music. The danzon came from the contradanza, which was brought by the French immigrants after the revolution in Haiti. They moved to the east of Cuba and they brought the contradanza from Europe. Some of those immigrants also came through Louisiana and New Orleans to the north of Cuba. This contradanza became the contradanza criolla because it became blended with the African drums and the Spanish flamenco thing. This all became contradanza criolla. The Louisiana groove also has a connection with contradanza at some point in history. That’s why this groove gets so well blended.
Ernesto Lecuona is one of my idols. I am so glad that I could really play this tune. It’s like a small tribute to him.
LJC: You’ve done a lot – you’ve had a full career and broken so much new ground. What would you still like to do musically?
HD: I want to keep working on different projects. Right now, I’m trying to play the music from my new album; I’m trying to play this all over the world. That’s my main goal. I’m planning to stay here in this beautiful city – I’m not planning to move anywhere in the next eighty years! I want to really keep working hard and doing new projects – working with my orchestra, working with my trio, composing . . . keep doing my thing and making a living!
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. You can find it HERE.
You don’t want to miss Part Two of our interview with Durán, where we discuss his tenure with the Orquesta Cubana de Musica Moderna, his connection to Chucho Valdes and Guillermo Barretto, and his time in EGREM studios. You can read it HERE.
You’ll want to read Part Three of our interview with Durán, where we get into his job as a pianist with trumpet player Arturo Sandoval, the continuation of Sandoval’s band as the restructured Perspectiva, and Durán’s work as a pianist, composer, arranger, and producer in EGREM studios. You can take a look at it HERE.
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