To be a leading Cuban jazz pianist, you need to have taught yourself to play a range of contemporary postbop styles and you should have studied for many years at a rigorous classical-music conservatory. But what’s mandatory is that you feel the island nation’s traditional rhythms coursing through your veins.
The confluence of all these elements has given us the music of such greats as Chucho Valdés, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Omar Sosa, and Canada’s own Cuban-born piano master, composer, and bandleader Hilario Durán.
For Durán it also helped that his father, Hilario Sr., was a leading figure in the Filin movement, which melded traditional boleros with influences from U.S. jazz and blues during the 1950s.
"He was one of the group of artists who created this style in Havana with Omara Portuondo, Angel Díaz, Elena Burke, and others," says Durán, on the line from Toronto, where he now lives. "My father sang beautifully, and he played guitar. I absorbed so much from him and his friends, and from a very early age.
"I’ve also incorporated a lot of elements of classical Cuban music in my style, from people like Ernesto Lecuona and Frank Emilio Flynn," Durán continues. "They inspired me a lot. As Cuba has no jazz schools, musicians there have to pick it up by themselves. I think this is a great way to learn jazz, because the music comes from the ear and the heart. In my generation we learned by copying and borrowing old records from each other, and it’s still a bit like that."
Durán cut his teeth playing with legendary trumpeter Arturo Sandoval from 1981 to 1990. Soon afterwards, he became a member of Toronto reed player Jane Bunnett’s Spirits of Havana, moving to Canada with his family 11 years ago. Since then, Durán has released a series of brilliant recordings with different musical formations. Nuevo Danzón (2005), made with his trio, bagged a Juno for contemporary jazz album of the year. And with From the Heart (2006), recorded with his 19-member big band, Durán carried off another Juno and a clutch of National Jazz Awards.
"I’ve played in Vancouver before, but never with either of my own bands," the pianist says. "So I’m very excited to be bringing the trio at last. We’re working on my next album, which should be out later this year. We’ll have some major Cuban guests, including the great [percussionist] Changuito, but I can’t reveal more right now. I’m very close to the current jazz scene in Cuba, and every time I get invited back there I go-but it’s never as often as I want."
The Hilario Durán Trio plays Performance Works on Sunday (June 22).