Pictured: Elio Villafranca (Photoggrapher: Kasia Idzkowska)

The Melbourne International Jazz Festival offers a great selection of musical talents and Elio VIllafranca’s performance ended the last days of the festival on a high. The Cuban-born, New York based composer, pianist and band leader left his mark on his first trip to Melbourne, while not being new to Australia.

Performing at The Night Cat in Fitzroyon his first time to Melbourne, he made his show one to remember. Presenting selected songs off his latest album,Cinque,with an eclectic band, we were treated to a group that effortlessly harmonised with incredible chemistry,despite having very little meeting (and rehearsing) times!

Cinque, Villafranca’s highly praised and Grammy nominated album, tells of the Congolese heritage and its forced union through the migration of Africans to the Americas. Their impact, especially musically, was one of the biggest influences on Cuban culture and you’re able to hear (and see) this in Villafranca’s album through the rhythm, drums, singing and dance.

Elio brings together the shared tradition of the Afro-Caribbean culture together, sequentially starting from Africa, to Cuba, to the US and back to Africa again, with his album emphasising the Congolese as the largest culture group brought to Cuba during the Slave Trade.

The performance begins with a narrator introducing the backstory before the band follow with El Rey de Congo (“the King of the Congo”) and there begins our journey through masterfully curated fusions of piano, narration, African elements of chanting and dancing, and contemporary jazz.Complex polyrhythms by the percussive sections blend skillfully with Elio’s well-paced playing and ornamentation, giving way to the powerful brass instruments.

Pictured: Elio Villafranca (Photoggrapher: Kasia Idzkowska)

Narrations are heard in between sections, small insights into the history of the Congolese, with the music producing vivid emotion and visual imagery. As seen in The Capture, a hurried and agitated song with tension heard from all instruments, the song creates an atmosphere of unease and conflict reflecting the hostility of the slave trade. Then the beautiful ballad Elio and the band play as the penultimate song visibly show each members heartfelt emotion to it.

The whole performance worked perfectly with Elio being the binding piece of each song, never overly putting himself in the spotlight but rather letting everyone shine on their own instruments.Without fail, Elio and the band keep the audience engaged throughout, not only by its powerful messages and exciting solos, but by constantly engaging the audience from all sides of the room through instructed clapping rhythms and dance moves.The performance ended with a conga line to Cuban music which is hard to resist.

Not only was the performance enjoyable and immensely impressive from all musicians, but also offered the culture of Cuba, its history and especially the people, who were wonderfully celebrated that day.

Rating: 9/10