“It’s scary,” said bassist Charles Flores (in Spanish) to keyboardist Elio Villafranca as they listened to the playback.
“This is so perfect that something must be wrong.”
Best friends and musical collaborators going back more than twenty years to their student days in Havana, Flores and Villafranca were working on Impressions of Graffiti, the 40-year-old Charles Flores’s first-ever album as a leader.
Flores was right; the music was perfect, and something was wrong. He didn’t know it at the time, but he already had the cancer that would take him on August 22, 2012.
He leaves behind this one incredible album. “He put all his knowledge into it,” says Villafranca. “It wasn’t one of those let’s-see-what-happens things. Every note was thought through.”
Impressions of Graffiti was recorded in three days of lock-out, sleep-in-the-studio sessions at the Carriage House Studios in Stamford, Connecticut. Dense with ideas, it presents a quartet of virtuoso musicians at the mid-career peak of their powers -- though the writing is so intricate, and the execution so accurate, that it often sounds like a bigger group is playing.
Charles Flores’s bass is the center of authority, but the album is only incidentally a solo platform for him. For all the instrumental skill on display, it’s about composition, and about a level of communication among the players that took years to achieve. The seemingly orchestral effects created by fast-breaking interlocking melodic lines may sound like the kinds of things commonly done today by overdubbing, chaining, or programming. But this music was played, and played the old way: with everyone together live in the studio, solos included, doing things that can’t be done overdubbing.
Stylistically, it proceeds along a jazz-fusion line that developed in Havana in the ‘80s and ‘90s and evolved further in New York. Flores plays six-string bass guitar throughout (shifting to upright only for #2, “Gentle Words”), while Villafranca leans more toward synth than piano. The guitar is electric, too, tending toward overdrive in the hands of Havana-born Richard Padrón, and also on two numbers featuring guest axmaster Wayne Krantz. In the drum chair is Cliff Almond, who played extensively with Flores in the Michel Camilo Trio. Cuban keyboardist Manuel Valera – nominated for a Grammy this year as a leader -- guests on #9, “The Whole Train.”
All but one of the album’s eleven numbers clock in at under six minutes. They snap from groove to groove, both between numbers and within them, giving the effect of one stylistically coherent large-form composition as the album plays on. Every cut is strong, but radio programmers might want to jump on:
“Carlito’s Way” (#5), a hypercaffeinated kind-of-cha-cha-chá with a screaming electric guitar lead from Padrón and breaks that have to be heard to be believed.
“Miriam” (#7), a ballad that is, in Villafranca’s words, “beautiful beautiful beautiful beautiful beautiful,” featuring Flores on the high strings of his six-string bass, playing the theme as if he were singing it.
The propulsive Flores-Villafranca composition “Street Walk” (#3), which functions as a high-voltage mini-concerto for Wayne Krantz, framed by a synth hook from Villafranca.
Charles Flores was part of one of Cuba’s many musical golden ages, the 1990s Havana scene. He attended Cuba’s famed ENA (Escuela Nacional de Arte), and was briefly the first bassist in trovador Carlos Varela’s band (which Villafranca co-founded with Varela). His professional career effectively began with a stint with Cuban jazz singer and trumpeter Bobby Carcassés. He then moved to the quartet of pianist Emiliano Salvador, playing with him for three years -- which is to say, he was in musical mind-lock with one of the greatest figures in modern Cuban jazz. Sadly, Salvador died in 1992, at the age of 40, as international recognition was beginning to come his way. That same year, Flores joined the seminal Havana jazz-fusion quartet Afrocuba (whose influence can perhaps be detected in the texture of this album), playing on their album Acontecer.
He then signed on with one of the biggest stars in Cuba, singer Issac Delgado, whose band was known for its popular flavor, the quality of its repertoire, and – even among Cuban dance bands – the surpassingly high quality of its musicians. Flores was the bassist on Delgado’s second, breakthrough album Con Ganas as well as the subsequent El Chévere de la Salsa y El Caballero del Son and El Año Que Viene, records that attracted an international audience. After coming to the United States, he played with a first-call sideman’s list of bandleaders: Paquito d’Rivera, Juan Pablo Torres, Brian Lynch, Giovanni Hidalgo, Jane Bunnett, David Sánchez, Arturo Sandoval, Horacio “El Negro” Hernández, Dave Valentín, Dafnis Prieto, and many more.
His most important professional affiliation came in 2002 when he joined the Michel Camilo Trio. With that group, he performed in the world’s most important venues and played on Camilo’s 2004 Grammy-winning Live at the Blue Note album. He remained with Camilo for the rest of his career, while playing in other configurations that included Dafnis Prieto’s Sí O Sí Quartet, whose album Live at the Jazz Standard was released in 2009 (Dafnison 002).
After recording Impressions of Graffiti, Flores, who did not smoke, was diagnosed with a fast-advanced cancer of the Larynx. About a month before his death, Dafnis Prieto visited him at home in Connecticut, where the two made an agreement for Prieto’s label Dafnison to release the album posthumously.
And here it is. Impressions of Graffiti is a classic already upon its release. Charles Flores intended it to be the first of many, and it should have been. But he put everything he had into this one, and it will stand.