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Jazz pianist Hilario Durán; Photo credit: www.hilarioduran.com
Review by Jeff Mitchell
Toronto ON February 9th 2019
Koerner Hall’s 10th Anniversary season, sponsored by BMO Financial and the Toronto Star, continued on Saturday, February 9th with the first TD Jazz series concert, co-sponsored by JazzFM 91, featuring Cuban-Canadian pianist, composer and arranger Hilario Durán and his Latin Jazz Big Band. Durán, who has performed many times at Koerner Hall, referred to this as his “dream concert”, given that his 18-piece band was made up of the crème-de-la-crème of the Canadian jazz scene, including many born and bred in Canada and others born in Cuba but, like Durán, having established playing and teaching careers in Canada. For those familiar with the Toronto jazz scene, the following names will be quite familiar and deserve acknowledgement here:
Saxophones: Pol Coussée, Allison Au, Kelly Jefferson, Jeff King, Shirantha Beddage
Trumpets: Alexis Baró, Alexander Brown, Michael Herriot, Kevin Turcotte
Trombones: Phil Gray, Yordan Martinez, Christopher Butcher, Christian Overton
Percussion: Jorge Luis Torres “Papiosco”, Magdelis Savigne, Reimundo Sosa
Bass: Roberto Riverón
To round out the band, Duran brought along legendary Cuban drummer Horacio Hernández, and three vocalists, Elizabeth Rodiguez, Yosvani Castañeda and Marta Elena.
Throughout the two and a half-hour concert, Durán took full advantage of his star-studded ensemble, trotting out chart after chart of incredibly complex arrangements – mostly his own – that often had the players juggling reams of paper as the evening progressed. Most of the first set was a like a workshop on latin jazz and Cuban music, ranging from rhumbas and sambas to salsa and pure latin jazz, including selections from his latest album, Contumbao, recorded in his native Havana in 2017.
For enthusiasts of the traditions of latin jazz and its integration with Afro-Cuban rhythms, the music was unrelenting, exciting, inventive and fiercely percussive. The trumpet section, in particular, met the challenge of some incredibly intricate, high register playing, often in unison. Durán solos extensively, and his playing is infused with his unique sense of pulse and unabashed jubilation. The only thing that this listener found disconcerting was the poor amplification of the piano and bass, which had the effect of creating a very muddy and overpowering accompaniment to the pounding rythym driven expertly by Hernández and the percussionists and making some of the instrumental solos hard to hear.
The intensity and length of the concert’s first half seemed to exhaust many patrons, who left during intermission, resulting in their missing out on the far more festive and party-like second half. Duran opened with an upbeat, driving version of “Cry Me a River”, featuring vocalist/electric violinist Elizabeth Rodriguez and dancers from the Toronto-based Iré Omó Afro-Cuban Drum and Dance Ensemble, including Sarita Leyva, Orlando Cardosa, Indira Rodriguez and Pedro Jaure. This set the tone for the rest of the concert, creating the feel of a Havanna nightclub within the concert hall environment. Perhaps it was concert hall decorum that had held the audience back to this point, but when Durán, himself, joined the dancers in the closing number, this seemed to unleash the audience’s pent-up energy, and they rose spontaneously, spilling out into the aisles to join in the dancing and singing and clapping. As the concert reached its conclusion, it seemed like the real party had just begun.
The 66-year-old Durán has been based for the past 20 years in Toronto, where he continues to teach at Humber College. It was fitting, therefore, when at the beginning of the second half of tonight’s concert, Duran was presented with the $15,000 Louis Applebaum Composers Award by Applebaum’s grandson, Jordan, on behalf of the Ontario Arts Foundation, in recognition of Duran’s contributions to the arts in Ontario and Canada. Durán is a very sincere man, and he spoke passionately about his admiration for those who influenced him growing up in Cuba, the musicians on stage with him, his enthusiasm for making music at Koerner Hall, and his adopted home of Canada. That appreciation was certainly returned to him by the audience and his fellow musicians.