May 27, 2024

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Interview with Hilario Duran: Music conveys stories and emotions and connects people: Video, new CD cover

Jazz interview with Cuban jazz pianist and composer Hilario Duran. An interview by email in writing. 

JazzBluesNews.com: – First, let’s start out with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music. How exactly did your adventure take off? When did you realize that this was a passion you could make a living out of?

Hilario Duran: – I grew up in a musical family; my father, Hilario Durán Senior, was a prominent figure in the musical movement called “Movimiento del ‘Feeling’ in the 1940s and played music in a popular Havana neighbourhood with local legends.

In addition, my grandfather had a vast collection of vinyl records of classical, Jazz, and Cuban music and soundtracks of American movies. So the music I heard during my childhood was from Louis Armstrong to Count Basie, Khachaturian, Errol Garner, Roy Eldridge, Harry James, Tchaikovsky, Gershwin; or Cubans as Ernesto Lecuona Adolfo Guzman, and Frank Emilio Flynn, to mention a few. So music has always caught my attention since I was a little kid.

When I was 5, I was a very busy boy unable to take some rest during the day; I  always was doing one thing or another. But I started to attend a catholic school (Los Salecianos de San Juan Bosco) where I used to hear the daily mass’s choral music every morning. As soon as I arrived home, I used to play that music on my toy piano. My parents bought a real piano for my older sister one year later.

My adventure started at that time. I began to play the piano performing a huge repertoire just by my ears.

One day, the whole family tried to hear my sister’s performance at a family reunion, and I began to sabotage her by telling everyone I could play and asking for permission to start playing.

Then, they allowed me to play something, but full of surprise, they noticed that I was playing on the piano, some pieces just by ear. I played a real piano for the first time, a piece called ‘Corazon,’ composed by Sanchez de Fuentes, a great Cuban composer from the Golden Era of Cuban music.

I started to play the piano, the music I listened to in my house all the time; I was very impressed with the sound of the instrument; it was like love at first sight.

I just wanted to be playing all day long that “thing” I didn’t care to play baseball or other kid’s games; I just wanted to be sitting and playing piano. It was funny because my mother sometimes had to lock the piano and hide the key.

Years later, while studying music, I started to listen carefully, learning, imitating and reproducing as much music as possible from great composers and performers. At that moment, I recognized that music was my passion and wanted to live from it and with it.

JBN: – How has your sound evolved over time? What have you been doing to find and develop your own sound?

HD: – After elementary school of music, I continued my piano studies as a part-time student at the Amadeo Roldan Conservatory. I also took private piano lessons with Andrea Mesa, a well‐known Havana-based piano teacher. In 1969, I became a full-time student with Oscar Lorie, one of  my  treasured teachers. During  this period,  I became addicted to Jazz. I listened to Stan Kenton, Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Lloyd, Keith Jarrett, and Chucho Valdes’s recordings. I also listened to recordings from Eastern European artists from Czechoslovakia, Russia, Germany and Poland. During this period, it wasn’t easy to find American jazz recordings, so with my musician friends, I listened to whatever tunes we could hear from short-wave radio.

In 1970, I started Cuba’s military service and played clarinet with the  Army  band “Estado Mayor Del Ejército.” It’s allowed me to  work  with different musicians.  I also used to visit a variety of clubs that featured Jazz bands. In addition, many big band orchestras played in Havana at venues such as The Tropicana, Salon Rojo (Capri Hotel), etc. “I was fascinated with the sound created by the combination of horns and saxophones. My dream was to, one day, play in one of those orchestras”…

I began working as a professional musician  in  Cuba’s  Los  Papa  Cun‐Cun  Ensemble. This ensemble was directed by Evaristo Aparicio, who was known for his work as a composer for the legendary Cuban Orchestra Los Van Van.

To perform with Los Papa Cun‐Cun alongside the great Evaristo Aparicio was a fantastic experience; I learned about Cuban musical forms such as Tumbaos and Montunos,” performing Afro-Cuban Jazz.

Later, working with The Castellanos Orchestra (After Beny Moré had passed on) gave me the experience and knowledge to perform Cuban music from the Golden Age.

My career took an important new direction in the mid-1970s when Chucho Valdes decided to leave the Orquesta Cubana de Música Moderna and formed his legendary group Irakere; Chucho requested me to be his replacement. This honoured request took me to a new and beautiful musical territory under the artistic directorship of German Piferrer, who introduced me to the intricacies of big band orchestras.

With Orquesta Cubana de Música Moderna, I learned and collaborated with many more great musicians. This Orchestra also allowed me to travel and perform at festivals and events in Eastern Europe and all over Cuba. In  addition,  the  Orquesta  Cubana  de Música Moderna also allowed me to learn orchestration from performing the scores by arrangers such as Rafael Somavilla, Armando Romeu, and German Piferrer. Since then, my career has continuously changed, starting to develop extensive work.

During this same period, I worked on various projects where  I expressed myself  more and more as a pianist and an arranger. I also worked at the famous Havana EGREM recording studios, first as a pianist and later as an arranger, composer, producer, and musical director with artists such as Omara Portuondo, Silvio Rodriguez, Beatriz Marquez and more.

I started to find and develop my own sound by working as an arranger with German Piferrer and Demetrio Muñiz (The director of the Buena Vista Social Club) at many of the famous Havana and Varadero Cabarets.

Then, around 1980, I started working as the musical director of the 10-piece band, ‘ Los D’Siempre. Then, I worked with Arturo Sandoval for ten years as a pianist, keyboardist, musical director, and arranger, but in 1990 Arturo emigrated to the US, and I formed my band ‘Perspectiva’ and continued developing my own sound.

JBN: – What routine practices or exercises have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical proficiency, in terms of both rhythm and harmony?

HD: – To practice my routine, I always use the Hanon exercise method to train my fingers’ speed, strength, and precision and keep my wrist flexible. I also perform many exercises of scales and arpeggios. I also practice a lot of classical music repertoire to stay in shape.

JBN: – Have you  changed  through  the  years?  Any charges or  overall evolution? And  if so why?

HD: – I have been a Latin Jazz musician with classic solid training from the beginning. So my style is always the same. But the music I am writing now differs from the one I wrote 20 or 30 years ago.

Music changes with time; I worked a lot with electronic keyboards and sequencers in the ’80s and ’90s, and later, I began to work with  more acoustic sounds. However, I always try to go in the same direction of the different tendencies and styles.

I immigrated to Canada in 1998 and started a new chapter in my music life. So yes, my career changed from where it began; Canada is a country that helps you change and allows you to grow in your musical career.

As a multicultural country, Canada enjoys Cuban culture and takes the flavour of its history. In this country, I have had the opportunity to express my own definition of what my music is about.

I lead different musical formats; in a piano solo performance, I perform all my Cuban repertoire from its classics and incorporate repertoire from Latin America, Jazz standards, etc.

My repertoire presents many years of musical growth in a trio formation that reflects a combination of Afro-Cuban styles with Modern Jazz and contemporary harmonies. This music is the result of close collaboration with Canadian-born musicians.

The music I perform with my quartet ‘Contumbao’ was created as a showcase  tribute that highlights the richness of Afro-Cuban Jazz; this repertoire is a voyage to my ancestor’s land, presenting Afro-Cuban Jazz music from its roots.

What to say about my Latin Jazz big band? It is a dream come true; the Cuban directors of the golden age of Cuban music inspired me to create the music of this format; this Big Band Orchestra is formed with Toronto’s top Canadian and Cuban musicians. The music performed by this Orchestra blends milieus and motifs of the  classic  Cuban  musical form. The music has been influenced by most of the  traditional forms of  Cuban  music and the most modern contemporary harmonies.

Yes, I have changed; artists constantly evolve due to all the influences we receive.

JBN: – How do you prepare for your recordings and performances to help you maintain both spiritual and musical stamina?

HD: – I study the piano every day, and one of the most important things is to focus on studying classical music because it will provide me with the necessary skills to play better every day. In addition, I think having a lot of passion for music is essential.

I also listen to a lot of music and lift many solos. I transcribe solo trumpets, saxophones, or any instrument until they can shape their style and voice.

When I am improvising, I breathe deeply and relax first. Then, I try to be creative and spontaneous and express my feelings to have something to say.

When I am rehearsing, preparing myself to perform in a band, I listen to the soloist and never play on my own.

Recording an album is a life-changing experience; it is a work that requires time, concentration and dedication.

I prepare myself psychologically; I concentrate and prepare myself to study. I dedicate a lot of time to choosing the best repertoire, and I check every note since it is a job that requires a lot of time and concentration. To be up close to that and hear that sound is a wonderful feeling.

JBN: – What do you love most about your new album 2022: Hilario  Duran  &  David Virelles – Front Street Duets, how it was formed and what you are  working on today.

HD: – What I like most about this album is the coordination that David and  I have playing. We show our passion for playing the same music for both of us. David is  one  of  the  most brilliant Cuban pianists of the young generation with a rising career in New York City.

During his stay in Toronto for a few years, we had the opportunity to share stages and work together on different projects, such as the tribute to Gleen Gould we did  in  a concert for two pianos with the Penderecki string quartet. We performed original works by David and myself and music by J. Sebastian Bach.

Front Street Duet is a project that we started working on at the beginning of the COVID-

19 pandemic; in 2020, Peter Cardinali, ALMA Records head and album producer, presented the concept to me; without a doubt, I chose David Virelles, and he instantly agreed.

All listeners can notice our great connection since we hit the first note in this recording.

After the album’s record release at one of the best theatres in Toronto, we plan to tour worldwide.

Regarding my work, right now, I am touring with Chucho Valdes in Europe, working as a director and keyboardist, directing the arrangement I did for the big band Afro-Cuban percussion and vocals composition by Chucho. Also, I continue  working  with  my different musical formats, presenting my music.

New CD – 2022 – Buy from here

Front Street Duets". Album von Hilario Duran & David Virelles kaufen oder streamen | HIGHRESAUDIO

JBN: – How did you select the musicians who play on the album?

HD: – I selected David to record this album because I consider David as one of his generation’s most important Cuban pianists, a big star shining globally.

We received the same influences from classical and Jazz music at different times. We have a musical and personal relationship dating back over two decades. Right now, David has so much success in the New York City scene, playing with great jazz stars and leading his projects.

Most piano duets by jazz players come from improvisation, where they make it up at the moment. We have that in this album, but also  we  composed and arranged music based on the same background and knowledge of the Cuban music we share.

Some of the songs reflect some of the most important styles of  Cuban  music.  For example, ‘Guajira for Two Pianos’ represents the style of Guajira Cuban music, while Danza Lucumi reflects the Cuban dance style from the 19th century. ‘The Malanga’ represents the ballroom dance of the 19th century, but the improvisation part is in a Son Montuno style. ‘Body and Soul’ is a ballad arranged in the style of Cuban Jazz…

We are dedicating this album to all Cuban pianists worldwide and within Cuba.

JBN: – In your opinion, what’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?

HD: – There are many ways in which human beings seek, on the one  hand,  to  improve ourselves and, on the other hand, to be in harmony internally and with the environment surrounding us.

Achieving the balance between the internal and the external is always a tireless search.

It is not enough to be healthy and eat well or to be responsible for the environment; but also to feed our soul in  search  of  elevating  ourselves  as  sensitive  beings,  to  something that we cannot see, but that  we  know that somewhere,  with  the  name  that  we  want to call it, from any philosophy or religion, it is in the corner of our spirit.

Music is one of  those ways we connect, often without words, like the look of  the loved one. We don’t need to talk to know and feel each other.

Musical intelligence belongs to the model of multiple intelligences. It is a concept that alludes to the abilities and sensitivities that have to do with musical sensitivity when it comes to producing it and perceiving it as such with all its nuances.

It is independent of hearing capacity and, therefore, only concerns the ability to process the sound information of simple or very complex musical pieces. It does not have to be embodied in specific musical genres either. What defines musical intelligence is the total freedom to create and appreciate music.

JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; are you OK with delivering people the emotion they long for?

HD: – My music (speaking about me) shows a sample of a rich amalgamation of music where I incorporate the most current elements of modern Cuban Jazz.

Cuban music is often considered one of the richest and most influential regional productions. The originality and quality of Afro-Cuban and Latin Jazz music greatly influence global tastes and trends; this is the art form that describes me.

As a Cuban-Canadian musician, I feel I am responsible  for  paying  respect  to  and sharing the wealth of repertoire not only from Cuba but also incorporate my new inspirations to share with the audience.

My audience is Ethno-culturally diverse, people eager  to  hear  new sounds and music well elaborated, Latin Jazz and Jazz in my own definition. I always establish a great relationship with my audience since I bring them the sound and message of my music to impact listeners directly and provide a unique  approach  to  the  audience.  At  the  same time, I show the history of the music genre I perform.

I think all artists are responsible for  presenting  a  work  quality  to  the  audience  to establish a  two-way  relationship  between  the  audience  and  the  artists.  And  yes,  I  am OK with delivering people the emotion they long for.

JBN: – Can you share any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions over the years?

HD: – My first memory came from a long time ago when Chucho Valdes recommended me to replace him at the Orquesta Cubana de Musica Moderna when he formed his legendary band Irakere.

Once in Canada, a very important moment was when I premiered my work ‘Sinfonia Afrocubana’ to be performed with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. “Sinfonía Afrocubana” is a three-movement concerto for Latin Jazz Trio and Orchestra, commissioned by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

This composition was influenced by modern Jazz and classical music mixed with Afro- Cuban rhythms and with elements of  Spanish flamenco music; the work is primarily based on the bembé 6/8 pattern, an Afro-Cuban rhythm for three African Batá drums (Okónkolo, Itótele, and Iyá).

With this composition, The Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO) saluted the many facets of Pan-American culture with a vibrant, percussion-sparked programme of Latin- American music at the time of the PanAm Games.

Chucho Valdes has been my mentor for a very long time, and I have  had  exceptional moments  in  my life  working  with Chucho: Now,  touring  with him as a  musical director and arranger of Chucho’s composition ‘The Creation,’  the  four-movement  suite  that explores the story of creation according to the Afro-Cuban Santería religion and includes elements of African music. Also, when I worked with him and the WDR  Orchestra  of Germany, I wrote a new concert for two pianos (Chucho and myself) and a big band; the world premiere was performed at the 2017 Piano Festival Ruhr.

Another important one is the composition I wrote to Paquito D’Rivera performed with my Latin Jazz Orchestra in my acclaimed Juno winner  and  Grammy-nominated  album ‘From the Heart.’

JBN: – How can we get young people interested in Jazz when most of standard tunes are half a century old?

HD: – Music is Universal; I think it never gets old. Jazz themes are eternal, so musicians must find a way to transmit them to young people so they can appreciate it best!

12.John Coltrane once said that music was his spirit. How do you perceive the spirit and the meaning of life?

The meaning of life is the reason that a person has to live, to get up  in  the  morning, make an effort, feed himself  and continue facing the difficulties that any human being has to go through.

If you don’t want to continue living a dictated life, your best option is to live by your values and choose a purpose for yourself; for me, music was my starting point.

When I had already found my passion, I asked  myself:  what is  your  meaning  of  life? And the answer was: Well, now comes the most difficult part: making it a reality by setting goals, carrying out projects and acting.

Spirituality is not the same as religion; I think those who develop the spiritual dimension in their person establish a significant resource for their life.

Music has a close relationship with spirituality.

After all this, I can say that I have my inner spirituality, and I think that music gives meaning to life. Music is my source of inspiration. In my opinion, spirituality and music can never be separated. If music awakens our inner aspiration, we will be inspired to dive deep.

JBN: – If you could change one single thing in the musical world and that would become reality, what would that be?

HD: – I have no interest in changing anything, talking about the fact that everyone is influenced in different ways and each artist can express themselves in their own way…

JBN: – Whom do you find yourself listening to these days?

HD: – I keep listening to a lot of music about everything that is  happening, analyzing… there are days I do not listen to music because I need to be inspired alone. My music is inside me…

JBN: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?

HD: – Music conveys stories and emotions and connects people. Music is sound and vibration.

Music is a very complete experience: it transmits stories and emotions and connects people. My goal is to find as many ways as possible to create music  that reflects  the world and makes music a very important part of life.

There is a paradox. Music is everywhere. Everyone has a lot of music on their computer, mobile or devices that allow them to listen to it all the time. However, it is a passive attitude. We almost always listen to it while doing something else: reading, driving, walking… One of my goals is to find different ways for people to participate in musical experiences: composing, listening carefully, experimenting…

Through music, I always want to transmit to the  audience positive  messages, feelings and emotions such as joy, beauty, fun, energization and relaxation.

My major commitment is to present an exceptional, unique performance to all and bring and educate the audience with these original Afro-Cuban sounds.

JBN: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine: where and why would you really want to go?

HD: – In 2002, I recorded my Juno-nominated album “Havana Remembered”; this album featured the sound and flavour of Old Havana in his ‘Golden Era’ with songs in Danzon style, Habanera, Son, Cha Cha Cha, Guaracha and Rumba.

The notes of the album said: …Since the troubadours roamed the villages with guitars strapped to their backs, music has resonated through the Cuban landscape, weaving a colourful tapestry of love, life and “las cosas sencillas” (simple things), music is the loom that binds Cuba’s people. Echoing from doorways and spilling out  of cantinas, traditional Cuban music, with its African, French, and Spanish influences remains as much as a staple of Cuban culture today as it did a century ago…

…Take this journey through Havana’s past as Hilario Duran captures with affecting vibrancy the music that courses through a vein of a nation.

If I could take a trip with a time machine, I would like to go there to experience that life as much as my past did.

JBN: – Do You like our questions? So far, it’s been me asking you questions, now may I have a question from yourself…

HD: – Yes, I really liked your questions, and please excuse me for the delay.

I have been quite explicit in some answers, but I wanted to explain some important aspects of my life and music. For sure, it is a good questionnaire. Many thanks!

No question to make; just say thank you!

JBN: – Have you ever given a free concert during your entire concert career? At the bottom line, what are your expectations from our interview?

HD: – I like to do free concerts; it allows me to bring my music to more people and make it more affordable.

I also like to  do free  concerts  to  raise funds for good  causes;  an  example  is  a concert I give yearly to raise funds for The Eye Foundation of Canada.

Years ago, I also raised funds to help the people of Alberta; it was called Alberta Fire Relief Fundraiser with Hilario Duran and Friends; I felt satisfied  because  many musicians performed with me in a Jam session for free.

Regarding my expectation from your interview: When interviewing musicians, you generally want readers to understand them and their music better; this  is  my expectation from this interview. Therefore, it is important to ask questions  only musicians can answer, and you did it! Therefore, in addition to being interested in the musician’s history, you asked me to reveal my personal opinions and feelings, and I appreciated this. Once again, thank you for interviewing me! Thanks, Hilario Duran.

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

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