Culture Fusion at the Athenaeum

Cuba and Greece meet nice in La Jolla

For their last concert of the summer series, the folks at Athenaeum Jazz went for a cross-cultural theme, employing the duo of Greek guitarist Spiros Exaras and Cuban-born pianist Elio Villafranca, (both musicians currently work out of NYC.)

Villafranca began the evening with the rolling, pastoral harmonies of his original “Keeping the Promise,” while Exaras wove single-note melodies and choice arpeggios into the mix. Navigating duet music with two chordal instruments is always a little tricky, but these musicians seemed to have it mastered. Once he got going, Villafranca was melodically effusive while Exaras exhibited a very patient approach to constructing his improvisations.

There was a lullaby-type vibe to “Deer’s Leap,” complete with gentle, delicate voice-leading that set up poignant essays from each player , and the episodic “Old Waters, New River” featured a mesmerizing blend of chordal expansiveness and hard rhythms, including sections of handclaps and chanting.

Villafranca’s classical chops emerged in his long intro to “Habanera Tu,” but the showstopper proved to be “Gitanos,” which toggled between an ominous ostinato and wicked unison runs -- yielding to wild, free exchanges and a fanfare ending.

Exaras’ feature, “Do You Hear Me?,” was uniformly excellent, coming across like a combination of Joe Pass and Julian Bream, and drawing a tinkling contribution from Villafranca’s sensitive touch toward the end

Especially satisfying was “Rareza Del Siglio,” with its nods to Monkish intervals and kinetic bursts of energy, including manic exchanges of eights and fours, and the hilarious insertions of quotes from “Caravan” and “Smoke on the Water.”

As always, the sound at the Music & Arts Library was superb, and not a single person from the sold-out crowd disappeared during the intermission. I’m already looking forward to the Athenaeum Fall concert series, which will feature a brand-new large-scale project from Mark Dresser and the super-exciting return of the legendary saxophonist Charles Lloyd. (Those concerts will be performed at the Scripps Research Institute Auditorium.)

 Robert Bush is a freelance jazz writer who has been exploring the San Diego improvised music scene for more than 30 years. Follow him on Twitter @robertbushjazz. Visit The World According to Rob.

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