Jazz pianism today stands at an apex.

There have been other moments in the music’s history when innovation rushed ahead of performers and listeners. But more than a century after jazz’s emergence, there are countless virtuosic pianists out there composing, recording and seeking a new vision for the genre.

As a classical music student in Havana, Cuba, Elio Villafranca would spend his lunch money on blank cassettes so he could make tapes of jazz musicians from abroad. Bootlegged recordings like this were the only way that young musicians in Cuba could hear jazz, and Villafranca often used up a month’s worth of lunch money to gain access to precious underground imports.

A tenacious dedication to jazz not only helped Villafranca develop an ear for its forms and feels, but it introduced him to a world of music beyond Cuba’s borders—a world that he soon would claim as his own. Now living in the States, Villafranca has emerged as a commanding presence on the jazz scene, not just in the U.S. but throughout the world.

In 2018, Cinqué (artistShare) garnered both critical acclaim and nominations for prestigious awards—a 2019 Grammy in the U.S. and a 2019 Grand Prix du Disque in France. The album, heavily researched, was an ambitious undertaking: Drawing from the story of Joseph Cinque, an enslaved man who led a successful rebellion in 19th-century Cuba, Villafranca created an extended composition with five movements that featured original writing, narration and field recordings of different Congolese diasporic musical idioms. By his own admission, the effort that went into Cinqué has set a high bar.

“What can I do that’s of the same magnitude as that?” Villafranca asked recently. “I want what follows Cinque to be as big as that. Or bigger.”

 What’s followed this year are two equally ambitious works, each expressing a different part of Villafranca’s musical persona and requiring a unique creative process. “I think of music in terms of projects. Once I identify the project, I then think about the ensemble,” he explained. “I never repeat myself.”

The first of this year’s undertakings is Don’t Change My Name, a concert piece that premiered June 3 in Barretto Point Park in the Bronx—the site of an enslaved peoples’ burial ground. The title of the piece refers to the legend of an African-born woman of the Arará religion whose captors changed her name, Tolo-Ño, upon her enslavement.

“Being an immigrant, I started realizing the whole thing about changing names is always about the use of power. ... Taking away people’s names and religion is a power play,” Villafranca said.

For the performance, Villafranca brought together a larger band than for Cinqué, with three horns, a rhythm section, drums, guitar, a pair of percussionists, marimba and a children’s choir from the Bronx Charter School for the Arts. “This is the first time that I’m using a choir,” he explained. “I felt the need for that in this music.”  

Villafranca intends to record the piece with the same band and choir that performed at the Bronx date. But before he releases Don’t Change My Name as a recording, he’ll launch On Any Given Night In Havana by the end of 2020. With the album—work beginning six years ago—Villafranca departs from the Afro-Caribbean material he’s known for and delves into the exciting conga-led descarga music of 1940s and 1950s Cuba, using song forms like sondanzoncha-chabolero and guaracha.

The musicians who led the descarga movement—like conga player Tata Güines, of the Cuban group Los Amigos—“are heroes of mine,” Villafranca said. “To pay tribute to them, I needed it to be that time-specific. It’s a big part of my heritage that I haven’t recorded yet and that I want to document.”

Much of the drive behind Villafranca’s growing international career is this desire to document and share the music of his home country with the world. He understands that sharing the music leads to greater understanding among people—it’s something he learned back in his Havana schools days. After filling his blank tapes with bootlegged jazz, Villafranca would share his discoveries with friends, and they would share their food with him. “It was a beautiful community,” he recalled.

WHETHER THROUGH RECORDINGS, FORMAL TRAINING OR MENTORSHIP, early exposure to a multiplicity of musical influences factor heavily into the development of today’s up-and-coming pianists’ creative visions. James Francies—whose October 2018 debut on Blue Note Records, Flight, captured wide attention—exemplifies the artist who learns by doing, with ears wide open to everything going on around him.

A graduate of the Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Houston and The New School in New York, Francies’ precocity caught the attention of Blue Note President Don Was early on—when Francies was just 17. A few years later, Was invited Francies to join the label, but didn’t put any pressure on him to record. “He told me to make the album when I was ready,” Francies said.

James Francies arranged a version of Rufus’ “Ain’t Nobody” for his debut album, which was met with approval from the song’s original singer, Chaka Khan. (Photo: Jati Lindsay)

James Francies arranged a version of Rufus’ “Ain’t Nobody” for his debut album, which was met with approval from the song’s original singer, Chaka Khan. (Photo: Jati Lindsay)

When the pianist finally settled in to record Flight, a collection of distinctly personal originals, he borrowed from all of his formative influences: electronica, hip-hop, pop, r&b and jazz. Novel and syncretic, each tune on the release “is a reaction to things I’ve experienced, and each one has a backstory,” Francies said.

With the album, Francies—already an in-demand sideman among the jazz elite—staked his claim as an inventive creative force in modern jazz. You can hear the freshness of his concepts on the heady “Dreaming”: While lyricist/singer Chris Turner’s preternatural vocals spin with effects, Francies comps on acoustic piano, his bright changes and free-falling improvisations offset by an impellent drum line.

This smooth hybridization of modern jazz and enhanced pop sounds comes effortlessly to Francies, who is as likely to play with contemporary acts like Lauryn Hill and Chance the Rapper as with jazz artists Pat Metheny and Stefon Harris. “It’s how I hear things,” the keyboardist said. “Incorporating all that into the album was just natural.”

 But Francies knows classic groove music, too. Among the album’s 10 originals is one cover—a complex, drop-dead version of the Rufus’ pure funk anthem, “Ain’t Nobody,” which Francies arranged in high school. “I wanted it to sound like Chaka Khan and Rufus at the Jazz Standard, with them swinging on weekends and doing r&b during the week,” Francies said. “So, I put an ’80s sounding filter on the vocals, moved beats around and added extra chords here and there.”

Khan heard the cut and was so impressed that she wrote to Francies to express her admiration for his work. “To have her give her blessing was a very special moment for me,” he said.

Looking ahead, Francies’ career will ride on the momentum that Flight has generated. First, he’s wrapping up a leg of European gigs with bassist Marcus Miller, and stateside, he’ll play with The Roots on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon before joining Pat Metheny’s trio for an August tour. He’ll finish out the year on the Blue Note Anniversary Tour with his own trio, featuring vocalist Kandace Springs and saxophonist James Carter. In and around all of that gigging, though, he plans to find time to work on new recordings, one with singer YEBBA and another with Chris Potter, both of whom turned out stellar guest artist spots on Flight.

But Francies hesitates to predict where his success ultimately might take him: “I create music just because I love it,” he said.

For the pianists here, at some point early in their careers they each managed to make the leap from local phenomenon to international notoriety—mostly through awards, competitions or label endorsements. Not every artist gets these opportunities, but for those who do, being ready for them pays off.

Liya Grigoryan was 12 years old when she started to compose. (Photo: Faya Eliseeva)

Liya Grigoryan was 12 years old when she started to compose. (Photo: Faya Eliseeva)

IN PREPARING FOR THE THELONIOUS MONK INTERNATIONAL JAZZ COMPETITION FOR PIANO LAST DECEMBER, Liya Grigoryan had only one quick rehearsal with the bassist and drummer who’d be her sideplayers on stage. There were 13 other semifinalists from around the globe selected to compete; Grigoryan—born in Armenia and raised in Russia—was the only woman in the bunch.

“You can play the competition solo, but I wanted to play in the trio setting because it was more comfortable for me,” she said. “And I played jazz standards because our rehearsal was only 20 minutes, and it would not make a lot of sense to do my music. So, I just picked my favorites.”

Performing in the Monk competition and hearing U.S. jazz stars like Herbie Hancock play live opened Grigoryan up to new possibilities in her career. “It was really inspiring to be in this world, seeing what it’s all about, because living in Europe, you’re so far away from it,” she said. “This competition was one of the best experiences of my musical life so far.”

These words are meaningful coming from Grigoryan, who’s no stranger to competitions. By the time she participated in the Monk competition, she’d already won several high-profile international music prizes for young artists, including the Leiden Jazz Award and Keep an Eye Foundation’s Jazz Award in the Netherlands, and the Jazz by the Pool scholarship in Italy. She’d also spent a year at the competitive Manhattan School of Music as part of an exchange program with the Conservatorium van Amsterdam, the institution from which she graduated with a master’s degree in 2016.

“It sounds weird, but I [didn’t start out with] classical training. I started with jazz,” Grigoryan said in response to a compliment on her technique. “I started at an incredible jazz school for kids in my hometown in Russia when I was five. My piano teacher said it was important to have classical [knowledge], so I always studied both. But I did better in jazz. [Classical training] helped me to become a good jazz player, though, to be able to control my sound.”

When Grigoryan started to improvise early in her training, her teacher urged her to see improvisation as a form of composition. That kind of understanding sparked Grigoryan’s deeper interest in writing her own music. “I was maybe 12 when I started to compose,” she said. “But [it wasn’t until] I was in conservatory in Amsterdam and I had a trio that I was writing for and performing ... [and] I could say, ‘OK, I’m a composer.’”

Grigoryan released her debut as leader, Liya Grigoryan Trio, on the Amsterdam-based Flea Boy in 2016. This smart, tight album—a four-tune EP of originals—reveals her advanced approach to writing for improvisatory musicians. On her tunes, the rhythmic structures predominate, even as Grigoryan stretches out into elegant melodicism; she likes to keep the mix simple, the busy-ness to a minimum. “Sometimes, I have a strong rhythmic idea and to add a strong melodic idea would be too much,” she explained. “I love to experiment, but I stick to one or two things in my writing.”

 After Grigoryan returns to New York—she’s touring Europe with both a duo and her trio during the summer—she plans to begin working on a new album. First off, she’ll select her musicians—a tough job, given the number of New York musicians she’d like to work with. Then she’ll think about instrumentation, perhaps moving out of the trio format that she finds so comfortable and into writing for a sextet or vocals. “I want to stretch my boundaries,” she said.

Constant experimentation with unfamiliar approaches to music is a characteristic this current crop of pianists seems drawn to. Whether they’re testing different band formats, unfamiliar compositional elements or uncommon collaborations, each holds a forward-looking view of the music—and their contributions to it.

Giovanni Guidi, in addition to working on a raft of other projects, took part in the forthcoming concert recording Roma, a date co-led by Enrico Rava and Joe Lovano. (Photo: Caterina Di Perri)

Giovanni Guidi, in addition to working on a raft of other projects, took part in the forthcoming concert recording Roma, a date co-led by Enrico Rava and Joe Lovano. (Photo: Caterina Di Perri)

WHEN YOU START TO DIG INTO GIOVANNI GUIDI’S innumerable recording and performing ensembles, it’s hard to keep up: He has more than a dozen albums to his credit, seven as a leader, and he’s juggling seven projects, each with a different grouping and purpose.

Guidi’s perhaps best known in Europe for working with trumpeter Enrico Rava, whose avant-garde ensemble he joined at 19.

“[Enrico] was really my mentor, the musician who helped me to develop my own language,” Guidi wrote in an email. “Playing with him all these years, it’s been a kind of ‘university of the street.’”

The pianist recorded three albums with Rava, starting in 2006, and this prominent work led to his own 2013 deal with ECM. That year, he released his first leader date, City Of Broken Dreams, going on to produce three more recordings for the imprint.

Of these, his 2018 release, Avec Le Temps, shows off Guidi at his melodic best. On the serenely beautiful album, he joins with four equally elite instrumentalists (drummer João Lobo, bassist Thomas Morgan, guitarist Roberto Cecchetto and saxophonist Francesco Bearzatti), solidifying his reputation as a peerless exemplar of the chamber-jazz sound.

 Which is not to suggest that Guidi doesn’t ever ratchet it up a notch. He also partners with trumpeter Fabrizio Bosso and three young talents from New York—tenor player Aaron Burnett, bassist Dezron Douglas and drummer Joe Dyson—in the quintet The Revolutionary Brotherhood, a fuller-sounding, more rhythmic group.

In addition to these recording and touring bands, he performs as one-half of an ambient duo; with an electronica-based trio; in a musical drama called Drive!; and with a new high-energy jazz band called Salida. His solo career is thriving, too.

The chord that runs through all of Guidi’s projects is his seemingly innate ability to convey intense emotional realities through his playing. Given the sensitivity of this effort, he enlists only the best musicians around, those “who know how to amaze me, surprise me every time, and push me into dangerous places,” he wrote. “The most exciting thing is when I can do those concerts where I can feel a complete sentimental connection with the audience.”

One of the beneficiaries of Guidi’s prolific output is ECM. Set for release in September, Roma, a 2018 concert recording, captures the pianist alongside Rava, saxophonist Joe Lovano; drummer Gerald Cleaver and Douglas round out the rhythm section.

“It was my first time playing with Joe, and every night was a different kind of adventure,” Guidi noted. “We played some of Rava’s and Lovano’s compositions—it was really an honor and a pleasure to play with [these] two giants.”

In these words, Guidi echoed a sentiment that all of these pianists voiced—an appreciation for the jazz greats who came before and helped them to develop as artists. From today’s vantage point, it’s hard to predict—but easy to imagine—that tomorrow’s pianists will return the honor to these wayfinding musicians. 

Photos: James Francies by Jati Lindsay. Elio Villafranca by Asia Idzkowska. Liya Grigoryan by Faya Eliseeva. Giovanni Guidi byCaterina Di Perri.

 (Reprinted from Downbeat Online 23 July 2019)