Sunday, August 3, 2008

Caramoor Day Two: Piano Wars '08!

Alright, so I've got about an hour to write about Caramoor Day 2 before I have to run back to Katonah, and so I think I have just enough time to devote two separate entries to the events. The next one is going to be about Wynton and his circus of New Orleans style madness, so that must mean that this one is devoted to the "Cuban Piano Summit" of Elio Villafranca and Chuchito Valdez and Mulgrew Miller's Wingspan.

As expected, the Cuban piano battle was the best event of the day, even though it wasn't quite what I had expected. Advertised as just that, a death match for the claim to title of God of Los Pianos Cubanos, the event was more like two guys playing separately. At least in the beginning. I was more than a little bit disappointed when Elio Villafranca came out and played "El Manicero" solo, thinking "hey, this isn't what I got free press tickets for, where's Chuchito? These guys should be killing eachother!" Of course, that was just the beginning, and Chuchito came out after Elio had finished his set of three tunes. Chuchito came out wearing a massive piece of bling; some kind of god chain the likes of which I haven't seen anywhere but in rap videos. He played his own set of solo tunes, the highlight of which was a gorgeous version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," and then Elio came back out and the death match began.

It all started out pretty simply; they played a pretty Cuban head and then started trading some tasteful fours. Elio tried to keep it tasteful, you know: some nice bop licks, a relatively simple polyrhythm. But then Chuchito went nuts, jumped up and down and played some incredibly fast, complicated stuff. Elio couldn't keep it tasteful; he went for the balls and matched Chuchito's complex work and made it even more complicated. It was on. Chuchito played the lowest notes on his piano. Elio played the highest. Chuchito banged the keys. Elio banged back. After about ten minutes they finished the tune and walked off stage, at which point Caramoor jazz fest producer Jim Luce called on them for a rematch-encore which neither of them could resist. The rematch consisted of another Cuban tune that eventually devolved into a twelve bar be-bop style blues and a disturbing amount of quoting from both; they quoted everything from "Rhapsody in Blue" to "Straight No Chaser." Afterwards, when I ran into him, Villafranco said the whole thing was unrehearsed. "I kept on calling him asking him what we'd do," he said, "and he just said, 'ehhh we'll figure it out'." Was it a total pissing contest? No question. Was it awesome? Hell yeah.

As for Mulgrew Miller's Wingspan, my non-jazz inclined companion said that a lot of the show was "boring," but that Miller's solo piano version of "It Never Entered My Mind" was "pretty." I think I'm inclined to agree with her. But Steve Nelson killed it. Absolutely nailed the show. He may not do the four-mallet thing, but he's still quite possibly the most technically capable vibes player in jazz.

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