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Vermont Jazz Center Presents: Elio Villafranca’s Jass Syncopators

Press Release – Please give author’s credit to Eugene Uman, Vermont Jazz Center, 802 254 9088,

Elio Villafranca to present The Jass Syncopators at the Vermont Jazz Center on Saturday, November 18th, 2017 at 8:00 PM

Press Release date: November 4th, 2017

Short Summary
Who: Elio Villafranca’s Jass Syncopators
With Elio Villafranca, piano; Freddie Hendrix, trumpet; Vincent Herring, saxophone; Peter Slavov, bass; Dion Parson, drums, Gabo Lugo on barril (percussion),
What: Jazz infused with rhythms from the Caribbean
When: Saturday, November 18th, 2017 at 8:00 PM
Where: The Vermont Jazz Center, 72 Cotton Mill Hill, #222, Brattleboro, VT 05301
Tickets available: online at, by email at, by phone 802 254 9088, in person at In The Moment, Main St., Brattleboro, VT.

Cuban Pianist Elio Villafranca to explore the intertwined histories of Latin rhythm and the American Jazz Tradition at the Vermont Jazz Center on November 18th

On November 18th at 8:00 PM, the Vermont Jazz Center welcomes to its stage Elio Villafranca and The Jass Syncopators. The group includes Cuban musician Villafranca, piano; Freddie Hendrix, trumpet; Vincent Herring, saxophone; Peter Slavov, bass; Dion Parson, drums and Gabo Lugo on barril (percussion). They will be joined by dancer Julia Loiza Gutierrez-Rivera. Elio Villafranca is a Steinway Artist and a member of the faculty at Julliard School of Music.

In this project, Villafranca fuses early jazz, Ellington-influenced writing, and bebop with the syncopations of the Caribbean islands of Cuba, Puerto Rico and Haiti. Villafranca asserts that the rhythms and forms of Caribbean music directly informed the nascent sounds of the jazz developing in New Orleans during the beginning of the 20th century. In an online interview describing this project, Villafranca explains: “Jelly Roll Morton used to call one of the forms of music he played the ‘Spanish tinge.’ I then discovered that what he used to call the ‘Spanish tinge’ was really the ‘Caribbean tinge.’” In other words, the sources of the rhythms that influenced Jelly Roll Morton’s music were Caribbean, not Spanish. This idea forms one of the foundations of Villafranca’s Caribbean Tinge project—a band and repertoire that intentionally examines how the rhythms of the Caribbean countries affected early jazz and beyond. Villafranca and his world-class ensemble perform compositions that marry two stylistic influences: one, the instrumentation, harmony and melody that evokes “American jazz”; and two, the rhythms, forms and dances that were being played in the Caribbean during the era when enslaved Africans were being brought over to the Americas. Because the rhythms the Syncopators draw from (especially the ubiquitous Congolese style performed in the region in Cuba where Villafranca grew up) are inseparable from the dances associated with them, Villafranca invites dancer Julia Loiza Gutierrez-Rivera to galvanize his compositions with the idiomatic movements that were paired with the rhythms upon which his pieces are based.

Along with rhythm, harmony and melody, Villafranca loves the minutiae of language. The name of his group, “Jass Syncopators,” carries a deep historical significance. The word “jass,” for example, alludes to the first documented spelling of the word “jazz” as it appeared in print (in 1915) and in the name of the first jazz group to make a commercial recording (The Original Dixieland Jass Band). Villafranca states that “‘Jass Syncopators’ is a combination of two things: the word ‘jass’ which refers to the beginning of jazz, and the word ‘syncopators’ which is a portion of the word ‘syncopation,’ which in Caribbean culture is a key element of the music.” The name also alludes to Duke Ellington’s 1917 performing ensemble, which he called “Duke’s Serenaders”; Ellington referred to this ensemble as his “Colored Syncopators” in their promotional materials. Ellington is a major influence on Villafranca’s work; one can hear that impact in both Villafranca’s chord voicings and the melodic lines he employs in his arrangements. And they both shared kinship in their mutual love of rhythm: Villafranca, who was a percussion major in college, says that Ellington “has a particular way of approaching music, very rhythmic, very syncopated, it’s almost as if he’s thinking of the drum and the rhythm when he composes.”

The concept of freedom is another important theme in Villafranca’s writing, composing, and philosophy. Villafranca came of age during the time when listening to North American jazz was prohibited in Cuba. While studying at the conservatory, he would spend over half of his monthly food allowance to buy black market jazz cassettes, sacrificing food and going hungry in exchange for access to the music he loved. “In Cuba we didn’t have solid freedom of speech. So this idea of getting freedom made my decision to try to move to the US easier.” Growing up in this system of Cuban oppression has given Villafranca an empathetic understanding of the plight of African Americans in the United States. As a deeply intentional black immigrant living in New York with access to a large audience that pays close attention to his message, Villafranca shares his vivid perspective of the civil rights movement and the yokes of slavery through his compositions. In the promo materials for his Caribbean Tinge release, he quotes Duke Ellington, who also used music to persuasively advance civil rights: “jazz is a good barometer of freedom. In its beginnings, the United States of America spawned certain ideals of freedom and independence through which, eventually, jazz evolved. And the music is so free that many people say that it is the only unhampered, unhindered expression of complete freedom yet produced in this country.”

In one of his compositions called “Congo Stomp” Villafranca uses New Orleans’ Congo Square as a symbol of freedom. Prior to the emancipation, Congo Square (now Louis Armstrong Park) was a place where some slaves were permitted to congregate on Sundays to sell their crafts, play music and dance. In an interview, Villafranca mentions that Congo Square “was the only place where slaves were able to play their music and be themselves. That freedom was very special to them, but it’s also special for me to come to America and to play jazz the way I wanted to play it.” Villafranca’s work, music composed by someone who has prevailed against systemic attempts at censorship, is a living example of freedom of expression. For the Jass Syncopators project, he symbolically knits the Congolese-based (and Cuban-distilled) Makuta and Yuka rhythms into compositions that evoke specific styles within jazz history. Villafranca is a griot, one who tells the stories of his people and brings the colorful fusion of multiple cultures to life through his compositions. He has done so by composing music that has identifiable historical and stylistic sources, and by carefully selecting musicians of varied traditions to interpret them. “I knew that I wanted to have a band formed by both American jazz musicians and Caribbean musicians,” Villafranca writes. “I knew that I didn’t want to tell anyone what to play other than to just feel the music the way that they wanted to feel it. It was very interesting to write music that was that open and inclusive.” He continues by saying “I wanted to put together all of the sources of music that represented the Caribbean that participated in the formation of jazz. I wanted to create this environment where on one side you had [the history of] jazz and the other side a Caribbean festival.”


Elio Villafranca is at the forefront of the latest generation of remarkable Cuban pianists, composers and bandleaders. In the 2010 he was nominated for two Grammy Awards. He has released three albums as a bandleader including The Source in Between (2007) which remained in the top 10 of the JazzWeek Chart for eleven weeks, and Incantations/Encantaciones (2003) which was ranked amongst the 50 best jazz albums of the year by JazzTimes magazine. In 2008, Villafranca was nominated by Jazz Corner as pianist of the year and received a NFA/Heineken Master Artist Music Grant. His music has featured artists such as Pat Martino, Jane Bunnett, Terell Stafford, and Eric Alexander. Villafranca has performed around the world as leader of his own ensembles, and, he as a sideman, he has collaborated with Wynton Marsalis, Jon Faddis, Sonny Fortune, Giovanni Hidalgo, Eddie Henderson, Miguel Zenón, Cándido Camero, and Johnny Pacheco.

The frontline of the Jazz Syncopators includes trumpeter Freddie Hendrix and alto saxophonist Vincent Herring. Hendrix has performed or recorded with the Christian McBride Big Band, Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band, The Jimmy Heath Big Band and Quintet, Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at the Lincoln Center Orchestra, Roy Hargrove Big Band, Nicholas Payton, Frank Foster’s Loud Minority Big Band, the Illinois Jacquet Big Band, Mike Longo Big Band, Rufus Reid Quintet/Nonet, Billy Harper Quintet, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Bobby Watson’s Horizon Band, Mulgrew Miller’s Wingspan, Oliver Lake Organ Quartet, T.S. Monk Sextet, Cecil Brooks III, and the David Krakauer/Fred Wesley group. He appeared at the VJC with Carl Allen in 2015. Vincent Herring is one of the finest alto saxophonists of his generation; he is well-known in jazz circles as the saxophonist who had the unenviable job of replacing Cannonball Adderley in Nat Adderley’s Quintet and knocked it out of the park. Herring has played in the legendary ensembles of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Horace Silver Quintet, Jack DeJohnette’s Special Edition, Cedar Walton, Freddie Hubbard, Dizzy Gillespie, the Mingus Big Band, Phil Woods Sax Machine and many others. He has recorded 20 albums as a leader and has appeared on dozens of recordings as a sideman.

Villafranca’s rhythm section includes Bulgarian double bassist Peter Slavov and drummer Dion Parsons. Slavov has recorded with Joe Lovano, Quincy Jones, George Garzone, Danilo Perez, Kevin Mahogany, Jamey Haddad, Francico Mela, and Alfredo Rodriguez, among others. Slavov is a member of Joe Lovano’s Us Five band, recipient of the Best Small Group award from the Jazz Journalists Association of America. Dion Parsons is a Grammy Award-winning drummer and is a native of St. Thomas and specializes in music of the Caribbean. He has performed with such greats as the late Milt Jackson, Monty Alexander, Jon Faddis, Steve Grossman, Gary Bartz, Terence Blanchard, Geri Allen, Donald Harrison, Don Byron, David Sanchez, Ray Anderson, Stephen Scott, Marc Cary, Lee Konitz, Ernest Ranglin, Ron Blake, Terell Stafford, Cyrus Chestnut, Wycliffe Gordon, Babatunde Olatunji, Baaba Maal, Joanne Brackeen, Dianne Reeves, and Steve Turre. His association with these musicians has taken him all over the globe on tours to such places as Japan, Europe, Canada, the West Indies, Africa, and the Middle East.

Performing with the Jass Syncopators is Puerto Rican-born dancer Julia L. Gutiérrez-Rivera. Weaned as a child on Bomba/Plena (Puerto Rico’s national rhythms) she received formal training as a part of the Children’s Workshops and with Los Pleneros de la 21. She is now recognized as one of NYC’s premier Bomba & Plena dancers and works with Los Pleneros de la 21, Alma Moyo and The Legacy Women. Julia has also performed with groups like La Tribu, Bambula, Plena Libre, Papo Vazquez Pirate Troubadours, and Elio Villafranca’s Jass Syncopaters.

Come find out why Wynton Marsalis welcomed Elio Villafranca to Jazz at Lincoln Center and hired him to the faculty of Julliard Music School. Marsalis states: “Pianist and composer Elio Villafranca is an inspired and visionary musician…The band swings hard and brings a traditional yet innovative style to the roots of jazz and Afro-Caribbean music. I am profoundly moved by Elio’s vision and musicianship.”

This concert will take place at the Vermont Jazz Center on Saturday, November 18th at 8:00 PM. The VJC is excited to present Mr. Villafranca and is delighted that he will present this important work at our Cotton Mill Venue. Tickets to this concert are likely to sell out, so purchase them in advance. The VJC is especially grateful for the sponsorship of Elio Villafranca’s Jass Syncopators by our dear friend L. Carlene Raper and our board president Julian Gerstin. The VJC is also thankful for the ongoing support from Hampton Inn of Brattleboro. VJC publicity is underwritten by the Brattleboro Reformer, WVPR, WVEW, WFCR and Olga Peters of WKVT’s Green Mountain Mornings.

Tickets for Elio Villafranca’s Jass Syncopators at the Vermont Jazz Center are $20+ general admission, $15 for students with I.D. (contact VJC about educational discounts); available at In the Moment in Brattleboro, or online at, by email at Tickets can also be reserved by calling the Vermont Jazz Center ticket line, 802-254-9088, ext. 1. Handicapped access is available by calling the VJC at 802 254 9088.


Live at Dizzy’s

Interview – making the Caribbean Tinge:

Live at Dizzy’s Congo Square:

Live at the Steinway Factory, Rhythm and Clave – a pedagogical conversation:

Conversation – the Pace Report at a Quartet Gig w/Eric Alexander

Playing more traditional Cuban music

Letter to Mother Africa w/talking drummer Abdou Mboup

Live at the Steinway Factory, Rhythm and Clave – a pedagogical conversation: