CD Jazz Review: “Frankly” by Paquito Hechavarria

Paquito Hechavarría

Frankly (Calle54/Sony Music)

By Fernando Gonzalez

You may not know who he is, but you have heard Miami-based Cuban pianist Francisco “Paquito” Hechavarría. He´s the one who played the exacting, driving tumbao (a repeated  pattern) in Gloria Estefan’s monster hit “Conga.” And well before that he played on Mongo Santamaría´s classic Our Man in Havana. But also you probably heard him on Barry Manilow’s “Hey Mambo,” or with David Byrne, or Ricky Martin, or Israel “Cachao” Lopez, or Christina Aguilera. The list is long.

In fact, Hechavarría is the quintessential “musician’s musician” —  a poisoned compliment that acknowledges mastery in his peers’ recognition, just as it suggests obscurity.

Frankly, his fifth album as a leader, speaks to his remarkable musical bilingualism, confirms his technical brilliance and might, just might, bring him out of the shadows.

Hechavarría, 70, came of age musically in the Havana of the 1950s, arguably the Golden Age of Cuban music. It was a time of superb combos and orchestras and now nearly-mythical places such as the Tropicana, Sans Souci and Montmartre clubs or hotels such as the Habana Riviera and the Hotel Nacional. Hechavarría, then a teenager fresh out of the conservatory, was part of Conjunto Casino, one of the leading ensembles of the day. And he also performed with well-known bandleaders such as Senén Suárez, and Nelo Sosa, the Tropicana club orchestra and the late composer-pianist-bandleader Julio Gutiérrez.

“All that was unbelievable,” he told me in an interview some years ago. “I had just started, and there I was, in the major leagues.”

But his truly stellar moment came when he joined the Orquesta Riverside, a premier large ensemble,  replacing Pedro Justiz “Peruchín,” a player as essential to the development of piano in Afro-Cuban music as Art Tatum or Bud Powell were to that of the jazz piano. Peruchín was leaving la Riverside to embark on a solo career.

“He was the greatest pianist in Cuban music,” Hechavarría said. “And there were some very good pianists around in those days: Lili Martínez, Jesús Lopez, Lino Frías. But what Peruchín could do in one phrase was without equal. And what he did harmonically, rhythmically, was so modern — he was 30, 40 years ahead of his time. Every important Latin pianist I know . . . has copied him or has been influenced by him.”

Hechavarría left Cuba for Miami in 1960 ( “It was the hardest thing I’ve done,” he said. “I suffered a lot leaving the Riverside. It was a great orchestra.”).  Performing in places such as the Fontainebleau Hilton Hotel, where he worked  for nine years, he moved on to Las Vegas for awhile, before returning to Miami for good in 1973. There he worked with his own group (“I think there is no place of that time that I didn’t play.”) built a name as a studio musician and, eventually, got the call for a session for a record by a fledging group with a promising singer: Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine.

“It was really exciting,” he said. “As a pianist I’m usually one of the first to record and never get to hear the whole thing with the brass or the voices. Here, the album was done, but they felt something was missing. On “Conga,” I played something I had played all my life – and that tumbao was later used to identify the tune. I was proud to be part of it.”

In the mid 90s, Hechavarría signed with Sony Discos and released Piano, a middle of the road Latin pop-jazz project that included both originals and versions of  Antonio Carlos Jobim´s “Usted Abuso,” (Voçe Abusou), the Doors’ “Light My Fire,” and  Grover Washington’s hit “Just the Two of Us.”  Calculated to please several, disparate audiences, it captured none and sank without a trace.

In Frankly, Hechavarría gets a chance fitting to his talent.  Produced by Nat Chediak and Fernando Trueba (the guys behind, among other achievements, Cuban pianist Bebo Valdés unexpected late-in-life career coda), Frankly surrounds Hechavarría with a strong supporting cast featuring saxophonist Phil Woods, trumpeter Brian Lynch, bassist Andy Gonzalez, drummer Dafnis Prieto, and percussionist Pedro Martínez. The program is a coherent selection of classics from the Great American Songbook reinterpreted in an Afro-Cuban jazz vein.

That said, there is Afro-Cuban jazz and then there is Afro-Cuban jazz. This is not lazy, paint-by-numbers jazz with congas. Rather, Hechavarría and the ensemble re-imagine the songs with a smart mix of brains, brawn and humor.

Take the opening “Change Partners,” in which the pianist, goes with ease from single-note, post-bop phrasing to exacting montunos and back. Or “Sweet Lorraine,” remade here as a courtly danzón that turns into a gentle mambo under Lynch’s soloing.

In Cole Porter’s “I Love Paris,” played in a driving 6/8, the song refrain (in Spanish) says that “Havana is great fun, but I adore Paris.”  And “Love is a Many Splendored Thing” is reinvented here as a down-to-earth rumba guaguancó. Hechavarría plays it impeccably but primly, almost in a mocking cocktail-time-at-the-Algonquin mode. (Knowing Hechavarría — a portly, quirky, jacket-wearing, hat-and-ponytail man, usually with a cigarette in a holder dangling from the corner of his mouth — the thought is not as much of a stretch as it seems)

The nod here, however, is to González, Prieto and Martínez who build and maintain a driving groove without ever raising their instruments´ voices.  Lynch and Woods, as guest soloists in three songs each, contribute ideas and distinctive voices. They flow with ease between bop and post-bop ideas and — especially from Lynch, a veteran of the Latin scene — the accents and turns of phrase of danzón and mambo.

Hechavarría plays throughout with remarkable clarity and restrain. The temptation of any great technician is to play and play, and then play some more, needed or not, because he or she can.

Be it self-editing or a producer’s nudge, in Frankly, Hechavarría seems to  be distilling a lifetime of  clubs, dance halls, concerts and studio sessions (in two verbal and musical languages, by the way)  into deceptively simple, fluid lines. More often than not, he seems content with just hinting at everything he can do (killer tumbaos, clockwork montunos, long, baroquely adorned single-note lines — and that’s for starters) without feeling the need to actually show it — and the music is better for it. By playing less than all he can, Hechavarría might actually wind up finding the larger audience he deserves..

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