Hilario Durán (photo by Danilo Navas)
Hilario Durán (photo by Danilo Navas)

As a teenager growing up in Cuba, Hilario Durán loved that island's style of big band music – a love he's continued with all his life, and will share with Ottawa audiences on Friday.

Durán will present the big band compositions which won him a JUNO Award and a Grammy nomination – performed for the first time by a group of 16 jazz musicians from Ottawa and Montreal, brought together especially for this show.

While the musicians have many years of experience playing in big bands, and some in Latin bands, Durán hasn't played with any of them before. But he's brought his music to other unfamiliar big bands and orchestras before, and he's looking forward to the challenge.

“It's going to be great! I'm very excited, and looking forward to it.”

What they'll be playing is not the classic big band swing of Glenn Miller, but rather Latin big band music. The difference, Durán says, is in the rhythms: “The rhythm section is Cuban, with congas and batas and other extra instruments from American jazz with an Latin influence.”

It's a mixture that was popularized by big bands led by Stan Kenton and Tito Puente, starting in the 1940s and 50s. Durán first heard this music growing up in Cuba.

“Many years ago, when I was a teenager in Havana, there were big bands in Havana in the nightclubs. There were club shows and there were big band often accompanying those shows with dancers and stuff. Also on the radio, there were lots of big bands. So I always had my attention on this kind of format, this kind of instrumentation.”

“I always love it, the big band sound, five saxophones, four trombones, four trumpets and the rhythm section. Always it got my attention, And also because there was a very big band in Havana at the end of the 1950s, Orquesta Cubana de Música Moderna, and I had the privilege to get into that big band years later assuming the directorship then. So that's where I learned all the secrets of big band music, working with the street bands.”

In 1970, he began his military service in Cuba, and wrote his first arrangements and forms for the military band he was playing in. When he completed his service in 1973, he worked in the Los Papa Cun-Cun Ensemble, learning from composer Evaristo Aparicio, who wrote for the legendary Cuban orchestra Los Van Van. In the mid-70s, renowned Cuban pianist Chucho Valdes asked Durán to replace him in the Orquesta Cubana de Música Moderna – which allowed Durán to learn from that orchestra's director Germán Piferrer.

In 1981, Cuban trumpeter Arturo Sandoval invited Durán to join his band as composer and arranger. Durán toured around the world in that band until 1990. When Sandoval left for the United States in 1990, Durán took over the band and renamed it Perspectiva; they recorded two albums and toured Europe and South America. At the same time, he also was writing charts for Valdes' band Irakere, a commission which he describes as “a revelation and an honour to do these.”

In 1991, he was introduced to Canadian saxophonist Jane Bunnett, and played on her award-winning Spirits of Havana album. He toured as pianist, arranger and musical director with Jane Bunnett & the Spirits of Havana, and released two of his own solo albums as well as several with Bunnett's groups.

He has lived in Toronto for the last two decades, performing and recording in Canada and all over the world and keeping up his ties with musicians from his homeland.

In 2007, the pianist, composer, and bandleader was awarded the 2007 Chico O’Farrill lifetime achievement award in Miami for his outstanding contributions to Afro-Cuban jazz and Latin Jazz. He's won numerous National Jazz Awards, and, in 2013, the Toronto Musicians Association named him Musician of the Year. He's been nominated six times and won twice in the JUNO Awards for his own groups, as well as playing on many of Bunnett's Juno-winning and nominated albums.

He returned to big band music in 2005, with the help of Toronto bassist and long-time collaborator Roberto Occhipinti. “He was really connected with the Canadian music scene. This time he helped me to put together this big band with some of the musicians, most of them from the former Boss Brass Orchestra. So with these great musicians here in Toronto we put it together this orchestra and played at the Distillery Jazz Festival.”

“We played our first concert and after this concert, we started playing all over, here in Toronto where we attracted the attention of Peter Cardinali, the president of Alma Records. He was the one to push me to record this orchestra.”

The recording, From the Heart, featured Cuban saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera and drummer Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez, in a collection of six Durán compositions, three Afro-Cuban classics (including one by Valdes), and one jazz standard. It won the JUNO for Best Contemporary Jazz Album of the Year in 2007, and was nominated for a Grammy for best solo (on Durán's “Paq Man”).

Durán has performed occasionally at the Ottawa Jazz Festival and the Ottawa Chamber Music Festival, most recently at the 2015 summer jazzfest in the group Afro Cuban Jazz & Beyond. Ottawa Jazz Festival programming manager Petr Cancura describes Durán as “one of the Cuban musicians that we have in Canada. The whole time that I've been at the festival, we've had him once or twice. It's always been with his quartet and it's always fantastic – but I just love his big band stuff!”

Friday's show at the 2018 Ottawa Winter Jazz Festival was Cancura's idea. “I ran across a YouTube video of him working with the WDR Big Band in Germany – and it's just killing! It's so great! So that's when I called up Hilario, and I said, 'Hey, would you be interested in coming here and working with local musicians?' ”

©Brett Delmage, 2012
Hilario Durán with the Gryphon Trio and Roberto Occhipinti at Ottawa Chamberfest ©Brett Delmage, 2012

Ottawa has a number of jazz big bands, including the Prime Rib Big Band led by Ed Lister and the long-time Latin big band Los Gringos, led by Mark Ferguson and Peter Beaudoin. Cancura said he wanted to get this big band community involved in this project: “It would just be great to work with somebody who's so invested in the big band medium as Hilario is.”

“And Hilario jumped on it right away, which was amazing! He's really great, really generous with his time. He got the music organized very quickly, so it happened pretty quickly from that.”

The resulting band includes many members of Los Gringos and the Prime Rib Big Band on horns, as well NAC Orchestra trombonist Colin Traquair and Ottawa bassist John Geggie. It also includes four Montrealers: ex-Ottawa trumpeter Emily Denison, trumpeter Alexis French, drummer Greg Ritchie, and percussionist Eugenio “Kiko” Osorio. Both Ritchie and Osorio regularly play with ex-Cuban, now Montrealer pianist Rafael Zaldivar.

Cancura said that Osorio will bring “a set of congas, and a whole bunch of Cuban percussion, smaller instruments. I think it just augments the sound, you know, especially the Cuban big band sound is very full and rich and often features drum bands. I think with just the drummer it's not quite full – it needs to be filled out.”

He said he picked the musicians based on “who I thought would be a good musical choice, first and foremost, and also somebody who has experience in this kind of music, can read [music] really well, because again the reading component is very heavy in this show, and then lastly who was available.”

Durán said the show will include 10 or 11 tunes, including several charts from From the Heart. The band will also play some of the charts that he has previously played with the WDR Orchestra in Cologne – and he'll premiere three or four new tunes.

Cancura said the musicians had had the charts for about a month and a half – which was good because “it's just technically difficult music. I think Hilario knew that and that's why he sent the charts so in advance. It's not an easy book to read.”

But “one of the things I love about it is that it doesn't feel like it's complicated in the sense of being complicated. Sometimes some complex music can be guilty of that, that it's trying to be clever or trying to be complex, but that's not the case at all with Hilario's music. The complexity gives it the Cuban feel and the rhythm, and makes you want to dance. So of course it's worthwhile!”

He said he enjoyed how “it's full of energy, it's very polyrhythmic. It has deep roots in the Cuban rhythms and Cuban stylistic characteristics, or however you would say. I love that, but then it's also just really well written big band music. As I practice it, it fits under the fingers really well. It's really fun to play.”

On the day before the show, Durán will hold a “marathon” five-hour rehearsal with the musicians, Cancura said, followed by a sound check/rehearsal on the Friday. “I was planning for a regular 3 to 4 hour rehearsal, and Hilario was like, 'No, we need more.' ”

Playing with different big bands and orchestras is a process Durán is familiar with. He's played with jazz orchestras in Calgary and Edmonton, he said, and in 2015, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra premiered his “Sinfonia Afrocubana” for Latin jazz trio and orchestra. “I used to play every year with the Gary Morgan and PanAmericana Orchestra, and I've done commissions to write music and play with the WDR Orchestra in Germany. And I have been working with several orchestras in the States and here in Canada.”

But still “not as much or as often as I would like, because I love this work, playing with big bands.”

He's been in conversations with Cardinali at Alma Records about recording another big band album, perhaps at the end of 2018, he said. And in February of 2019, he'll bring back Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez for a big band show at Koerner Hall at the The Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto – which will feature some of the pieces in his 2017 album, Contumbao, rearranged for big band.

What kind of reaction does he get when he plays this music?

Audiences “like it a lot”, he says. “It's a very exciting music, you know, with the rhythm section, the brass section, it's really an alive music, very interesting. The people love it, this Cuban music.”

The Ottawa Latin Jazz Big Band will perform at 6 p.m. on Friday, February 9, in Studio A at La Nouvelle Scène, 333 King Edward Avenue (one block north of Rideau Street). Tickets are $30, available from the Ottawa Jazz Festival. The band lineup is:

  • Saxophones: Mike Mullin, Petr Cancura, Mike Tremblay, Tyler Harris, Richard Page
  • Trumpets: Nick Dyson, Ed Lister, Alexis French, Emily Denison
  • Trombones: Mark Ferguson, Mike Schultz, Paul Adjeleian, Colin Traquair
  • Rhythm Section:  
    • Greg Ritchie - drums
    • John Geggie - bass
    • Eugenio Osorio - percussion
  • Conductor, compositions, piano: Hilario Durán

OC Transpo routes 7, 12, 14, and 18 all stop on Rideau Street near La Nouvelle Scène. The Transitway Station on the Mackenzie-King Bridge is about 15 minutes walk away.

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