Hilario Duran – A Canada/Cuba Latin Jazz Perspective

Hilario Duran Photo Credit Bill King.jpg

Submitted by Bill King
Hilario Duran: Photo Credit Bill King

As a pianist, composer, bandleader and arranger Hilario Duran is one of the greatest virtuoso jazz pianists to emerge from Havana, Cuba. As a member of Arturo Sandoval’s band from 1981-1990, he toured the world performing at major jazz festivals and sharing stages with legendary musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie and composer-arranger Michel Legrand. In 1990, Duran formed his own band, Perspectiva, which toured successfully through Latin America and Europe. One year later, he participated as key pianist in Jane Bunnett’s Juno Award – winning CD, Spirits of Havana. Since moving to Canada in 1995, he has become an integral part of the Canadian music scene with his Latin Jazz orchestra and piano jazz trio with drummer Mark Kelso and bassist Roberto Occhipinti and a member of the jazz faculty at Humber College.

Hilario Durán’s 20 piece Latin Jazz Big Band and album, “From the Heart”, (2006, Alma/Universal Records), featuring Paquito D’ Rivera and Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez, won a 2006 Grammy nomination and the 2007 Juno Award for “Contemporary Jazz Album of the Year.

Bill King: What were your first musical experiences?

Hilario Duran: I grew up in a musical environment. When I was eight, my parents decided to buy a piano for my sister because at the time all girls in my country were taking piano lessons. It was fashionable. I remember they bought a white upright piano. When I saw it, I felt a big attachment with the instrument and fell in love at first sight. My first musical experience was trying to make different sounds on that piano.

B.K: What music was played around home?

H.D: In my home, everybody was listening to all kinds of music on radio and television. My grandfather had an extensive collection of music like jazz, classical and movie soundtracks – every kind of music you can imagine. I always remember my parents and grandparents sitting in the backyard on Sunday afternoons discussing music and genres, and my sister and me playing piano in our living room.

B.K: When did you begin formal studies?

I started to play piano by ear, but after awhile I began taking private lessons with very good piano teachers such as Caridad Mesquida, the aunt of the famous guitar player Leo Bower and Andrea Mesa. Thanks to Mesa, I started formal piano studies at the Amadeo Roldan in Havana, when I was 14. Oscar Lori was my first piano teacher at the Amadeo Roldan Conservatory, and I’ll always remember him.

B.K: Do you have an extensive classical background?

H.D: Oh, yes. I will always have a great connection with classical music. I grew up listening and playing this music. I have been involved in this all my life – Chopin, Bach, Debussy, Scrabbin, among others.

B.K: When did you first take to jazz?

H.D: I listened to jazz since I was a child because my father used to play trumpeters like Harry James and Roy Eldridge. My first jazz recording was by pianist Erroll Garner.

B.K: Who influenced you the most?

H.D: I have been influenced by different musicians all through my life. Talking of jazz pianists, as I said, Erroll Garner was the first – also the Cuban pianists such as Ernesto Lecuona, Frank Emilio Flynn and Chucho Valdes.

B.K: Did you follow the career of fellow Cuban icon – Emiliano Salvador?

H.D: Emiliano and I were very good friends. We were together for a very long time and I think his style was unique in influencing all musicians of our generation.

I was very lucky because I had the opportunity to be with him, hanging out, sharing scenarios and playing together in themes using four hands.

However, Chucho Valdes definitely is the pianist who most influenced my life.

B.K: Were you able to get recordings of artists like Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett and Herbie Hancock?

H.D: At the time, it was very difficult to get recordings of American jazz because of the American blockade. I heard Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock on the sort-wave radio. When some friends were able to travel abroad and bring records of their music to Cuba, we managed to listen and borrow from one another.

B.K: What was a school day like in both intermediate and university levels?

H.D: It was a long routine because in my country all music schools teach subjects like math, Spanish and physics in the morning, and teach the music subjects in the afternoon.

I’d wake up in the mornings and have to travel to school by bus. I didn’t like school mornings at all, because I wanted to be playing piano. The best part of the day was when I had to practice the piano.

After classes ended at 5 p.m., I always wanted to stay at school. I had piano at home, but the school’s was different. It was a beautiful time that I will always remember.

Hilario Duran LivePhoto Credit Bill KingHilario Duran Live
Photo Credit Bill King

B.K: Did you participate in sports?

H.D: Not at all. They usually practiced a lot in school, but I was practicing piano all of the time. It is funny because my father and other family members loved sports. I didn’t. I practiced sports when I was in school because it was mandatory, but I have never been interested.

B.K: When did you get your first gig and what was it?

H.D: My first gig was in 1971 during military service playing a piece (written for piano and band) by Rembert Egfes during military band festival in Havana. It was a very difficult piece written in the style of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. I was nervous, but I played it well. I will never forget this piece – the name of it was Prologue.

B.K: Were you putting together bands early on?

H.D: I always tried jamming and forming bands during my days at the conservatory. Later on, when I was a professional musician, my first working trio was with Ignacio Berroa playing drums and Jorge Soler (Yoyi) on bass. We had lots of rehearsals but never played a gig.

After this trio, I formed a small ensemble with musicians from the Orquesta Cubana de Musica Moderna. The ensemble was called Los de Siempre. We were a group of musicians who always was playing everywhere – for jam sessions, cabarets, making recordings, and so on. We recorded a disc in the EGREM Studios called Los de Siempre y la Gran Timba del Caribe. Some of the musicians in this ensemble work in the famous Buena Vista Social Club.

B.K: When did you start working in show bands?

H.D: During my time in the military service, I used to visit nightclubs in Havana and watch what was happening there. For me, to be working in a show band was a passion and a dream. I started working when I was in the Orquesta Cubana de Musica Moderna. We used to play variety shows in the Amadeo Roldan Theatre in Havana. That was in 1976.

B.K: Did you work the Parisian Room in Havana?

H.D: In 1977, I started to work in the Parisian Room (Cabaret Parisian) in Havana. It was a small jazz band with three trumpets, two trombones and one tenopr saxophone. The show started with a funny singer named Juana Bacallao.

I worked in this orchestra for about three years with Arturo Sandoval and Ignacio Berroa.

B.K: Tell me about Perspectiva and Arturo Sandoval.

H.D: Arturo and I worked together for years. I was pianist, arranger and composer in band. It was a very good experience for me. Arturo formed his own band in 1981 and started to get famous. This gave me an opportunity to play all over the world – sharing the stage with great musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie, Michel Legrand, Wynton Marsalis, Bobby McFerrin and many others.

Arturo left Cuba in 1990 and then I formed Perspectiva with all the members of his band. I will always remember Perspectiva. We toured in Europe and America, and recorded two CDs – Tiembla Tierra and Buscando Cuerdas labeled by EGREM Stuios.

It was very gratifying to have a reunion a few years later to record my Juno-nominated Perspectica CD Encuentro en La Habana in EGREM Studios.

B.K: Your first trips outside Cuba – where did you go?

H.D: In 1979 I was playing with Orquesta Cubana de Musica Moderna and we went to many different countries in communist Europe – such as Bulgaria, Poland, Hungary and the Soviet Union.

B.K: How did you end up in Canada?

H.D: In 1991, I recorded Spirits of Havana in EGREM Studios with Jane Bunnett, Mercedita Valdes, Guillermo Barreto, Frank Emiliano, and Gonzalo Rubalcaba.

After the recording, I came to Toronto to do a gig at Harbourfront with the band. Four years later, I came back to Toronto to record the album Rendezvous Brazil Club with Cuban bass player Carlitos del Puerto and two Brazilian musicians Flo and Celso Machado.

After that, Jane Bunnett and Larry Cramer joined my band Perspectiva and we did a couple gigs in Paris. Then I came back to Canada leading a quartet a few months later.

Shortly afterwards, I moved to Toronto and joined Jane again on tour. We played in Halifax, we did some local gigs, and then she helped me do my first album with Justin Time, Francisco’s Song.

In 1995, I left Perspectiva and started coming to Canada every year to work with Jane and Larry. Finally, in 1998, I decided to establish myself in Toronto and brought my wife and daughter.

B.K: Your big band is amongst the finest. Had you been writing charts over a long period in anticipation of forming a band such as that?

H.D: I started writing charts for this orchestra months before our first gig at the Distillery Jazz Festival. I did it with some original material and re-orchestrated some old charts of music I recorded before.

B.K: Did you study arranging and composition?

H.D: I didn’t study either. Composition is something I do by instinct. I have always written music.

The director German Pifferrer was the person who taught me how to orchestrate for big band situations. I also learned reading scores from all of the great Cuban arrangers like Rafael Somavilla, Adolfo Guzman, Rolando Baro and Juanito Marquez.

B.K: Do you spend a lot of time at home writing and experimenting?

H.D: I spend a lot of time writing but not experimenting. I always get impressions from all kind of music that I am listening to. Once I listen, I start to create. I never tried to create a new style despite what people say my music sounding original or new.

B.K: Do you enjoy teaching?

H.D: Yes, I love teaching. It is something very rewarding and enjoyable. I feel happy when I’m working with my ensembles at Humber College.

It’s always hard to start the band – organizing everything, explaining Cuban rhythms, and teaching them systematically how to play one chart to another.

However, at the end, it’s great when you can watch all they have learned and hear them play as professionals.