Latin Jazz Conversations: Hilario Duran (Part 3)


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There are many potential elements that can constitute a successful and inspired Latin Jazz career, but one thing is guaranteed—constant change. A creative individual rarely stays on one artistic track for too long during their career, it's simply not in their nature. They might shift between different artistic directions at several points during their career, taking the opportunity to explore various aspects of their musical interests. Their prime collaborators often change throughout the course of their career, taking them between a number of different inspirational figures. They might experience physical change, moving from location to location and soaking in all the unique qualities of every new locale. Their instrument might evolve throughout their lives, integrating new sounds, registers, and techniques into their repertoire that previously escaped them. Change inspires good things in an artistic individual, sparking their creative spirits at every turn, and ensuring a steady stream of interesting work.

Pianist Hilario Durán spent his youth building his musical skills and then establishing himself on Havana's music scene before going through a series of rapid career changes. Inspired by his father's deep connection to music and performance, Durán immersed himself first in his family's large record collection and then in the piano. He constantly occupied himself with the piano, leading to steady lessons, and later, entrance into the Amadeo Roldan National Conservatory. The school challenged Durán with a thorough classical training, while he learned the inner workings of jazz through “lifting" solos from recordings. After graduation, Durán served his three mandatory years in the Cuban army, playing both piano and clarinet in the military band. At the time, the Cuban government saw jazz as the “music of the enemy," but my the mid-sixties, they loosened their view enough to create the Orquesta Cubana de Musica Moderna. This group acted as the impetus for Irakere, and when pianist Chucho Valdes left the orquesta to lead Irakere, he recommended Durán as his replacement. As the pianist stepped into the upper echelons of Havana's music scene, he also found work at EGREM studios, first as a pianist and later as a composer and producer. In 1981, trumpet player Arturo Sandoval left Irakere and recruited Durán to help him form his own Latin Jazz band. The subsequent group became extremely popular, taking Durán, Sandoval, and the whole group around the world. Sandoval left Cuba in 1991, but Durán kept the group together, renaming it Perspectiva and pushing the group in a more fusion oriented direction. After a few years with Perspectiva, Durán desired a return to acoustic music, so he left the group and started his career as a solo artist. Through Guillermo Barretto, Durán met saxophonist Jane Bunnett, who had traveled to Cuba to record with the island's musicians. Durán recorded the Juno winning album Spirits of Havanawith Bunnett and remained a regular collaborator with the saxophonist. Bunnett encouraged Durán to record as a leader, and after two successful albums,Francisco's Songand Killer Tumbao, Durán moved his family to Bunnett's home base, Toronto. After years of a rapid zig-zag course, Durán settled into a new musical life, ready to establish himself as a prominent artist.

Durán's numerous collaborations during the nineties resulting in a wealth of inspiring music, priming him for his musically mature output after the turn of the century. In Part One of our interview with Durán, we discussed the influence of his father's musical career, his time at the Amadeo Roldan National Conservatory, and his turn in the military band. In Part Two of our interview, we looked at Durán's tenure with the Orquesta Cubana de Musica Moderna, his connection to Chucho Valdes and Guillermo Barretto, and his work in EGREM studios. Today, we dig into Durán's time in Sandoval's band, Perspectiva, his first recording with Bunnett, and much more.

———- LATIN JAZZ CORNER: When you joined Arturo's band in 1981, was that group starting from scratch?

HILARIO DURÁN: We started from zero, from scratch. We didn't know what we going to do or what we were going to write. We started thinking about it and then just experimenting. The first two years of this band was just blindly attempting to figure out what to play and what to do. But sooner than later we found the way. I was satisfied working with that band.

LJC: There was a lot of jazz in there, some Latin rhythms, funk, and rock—what types of things were you guys listening to that you wanted to pull into the band and what were you going for musically?

HD: I used to write original music there, using the experience that I had gotten from elsewhere. Arturo used to write too; Arturo was the director, so actually he was the one who used to write most of the music. I helped him with the arrangements. Arturo has a really great sense of commerce; he knows how to catch the audience. He really figured out how to please the audience. It was a good combination.

LJC: You guys traveled a lot, right?

HD: We traveled all over the world. The only places that we didn't go were Asia and Africa. We went to South America, and we went to the States too—not very often, but three or four times. It was very restricted at this time; it was really hard to get into the United States. We traveled a lot in Europe, every year from 1984 to 1990. We played almost all the festivals in Europe every year. I played most of the clubs in Holland, Switzerland, and Germany, as well as all the jazz festivals at this time. We really worked a lot.

LJC: When Arturo left to go to the States, you kept the group together . . .

HD: Yea, I decided to keep the band together. We had so many years of working together that we decided to keep working. I don't consider it a mistake for me, but we started from scratch again. We started working a new musical concept. Before it was Arturo's band, so we were accompanying him, but in this new time, we started to work as a collective group. We started playing like Sypro Gyra. That's what we were trying to do.

LJC: Was it all the same people or were there any new members?

HD: It was the same people that were with Arturo. Then two years after Arturo left, we added a saxophonist. Later we replaced him with Yoel Terry, the brother of Yosvany Terry. Unfortunately he died recently in a car accident, but he used to work in my band.

LJC: I've never been able to track down the two albums that you did with Perspectiva, but I've seen videos on YouTube. It seems like it was more of a fusion group . . .

HD: It was totally fusion. It was so influenced by the Chick Corea Elektric Band. That was my goal—I tried to imitate that sound. There were a lot of synthesizers at this time; I spent like three years without practicing piano, only programming synthesizers. I was obsessed with synthesizers! After that, I realized that it all was not worth it, so I stopped working with synthesizers. I went back to the piano!

It was a good experience though; it was the sound of that era. Everybody was using synthesizers. Even when we used to work with Arturo, he decided to play synthesizer, so that he could get the sound of the strings behind the harmonies of the piano. That was what all the bands in Cuba were doing, even bands abroad. They had this sound—the piano with strings behind it . . . plastic, tiny strings! They sounded terrible, but they loved it. The sound of the brass synthesizers . . . I hear this now and I think it's unbelievable how I could play that. I tried to imitate and program those sounds; I tried to make them as real as possible. It never was possible to imitate the sound of a real trumpet or saxophone. It sounded plastic all the time, but we loved it!

LJC: When did you meet Jane Bunnett and start working with her?

HD: It was 1991. She went to Cuba on a vacation in 1990. She got so amazed by the bands and the musicians. She decided to come back and do an album of Cuban music. At the time, there was a lady that introduced Guillermo Barretto to Jane and Larry (Cramer). They started a relationship and they decided to do a Cuban album—the first album was called Spirits of Havana. It was the first album that they made of Cuban music—this was even before Buena Vista Social Club. Guillermo Barretto started to call the musicians and put the band together for that recording. So he called me; he hired me to play on this album.

It was casual though; it was like fate. I remember I was in the neighborhood of the Vedado, just walking there. I saw him in his car—he drove a flamboyant car, a 1958 Chevrolet. He turned the corner and he saw me, so he shouted at me. He said, “Hilario, I have some friends from Canada and we're doing a recording. I want to hire you to play on this album." He remembered that I played well, that's what he told me! I said, “O.K." The next day I went to the studio and that was the first time that I met Jane and Larry. It was the beginning of a great relationship that has lasted until now.

We recorded that album together with Frank Emilio, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Merceditas Valdes, the folkloric group Yoruba Andabo, the guitarist Ahmed Barroso, who's in Miami now, and lots of great musicians in that band. We recorded that album and Jane got her first Juno award for it.

LJC: You recorded another album with her, and then she helped you put together your first album as a leader, Francisco's Song.

HD: That was a year later. After a few years of working with Perspectiva, I quit the band. I was trying to look for other musical adventures, so I quit Perspectiva and I started working on my own as a soloist in Havana. It was the greatest time. I started practicing hard piano again and I started doing solo concerts all over the city. I started working with Jane Bunnett—she hired me and I started coming to Canada to work here with her. I flew into Toronto and from here we started touring the United States and Europe, everywhere. There were three or four years like that, from 1995 until 1998. During this time, she helped me to work on my first three solo albums.

LJC: Francisco's Songwas the first one, right?

HD: Francisco's Songwas first and then Killer Tumbao. After Killer Tumbao, I brought my family here in 1998. During that time, I recorded Havana Nocturna with strings.

LJC: What inspired you to move to Toronto?

HD: I started working here a lot . . . and I love this city, I really love this city. This is one of the cleanest and the safest cities in the world. People respect you a lot, and there is no racism. There are a lot of programs for the government to help people; it was the perfect place for me to live with my family. There was a good music scene too—it wasn't quite like now, but it was a great music scene. There were a lot of great jazz musicians here, and I was starting to work with them.

LJC: Where you able to jump on the scene and work regularly?

HD: Yea, I started working a lot with everybody. I started to connect with the music scene right away. Since the very beginning I started teaching too. I started working in the music program at Humboldt College as a piano teacher and later I started conducting orchestras there with the students.

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This story appears courtesy of The Latin Jazz Corner by Chip Boaz.
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