The Amazing Carlos del Pino Plays Paganini

The Maestro Contemplates the Score

 A Classically Cuban Concert for the Ages

It is no exaggeration to say that every time the virtuoso Bassist Carlos del Pino and his quartet performs in concert it is a history making event, as was the recent concert held at the elegant Christ and St. Stephens Church on the Upper West side, sponsored by the Cuban Cultural Center of New York, in collaboration with the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and the New York State Council of the Arts.

The eclectic programs performed by the quartet are made possible by the extraordinary musicians in the band, whose virtuosity span three major musical genres encompassing the most complex in the western tradition – European Classical, Classic Jazz and the Afro-Cuban Son Montuno.  On this occasion the quartet played a program of mostly Cuban composers, hence the title “Classically Cuban.”

However, the unequalled performance by Carlos del Pino of Niccolo Paganini’s compositions stole the show. Carlos provides us a glimpse of the twin ambitions that fuel his artistry. First, like all greats in any field, he is constantly trying to get better.  “Through time,” says Carlos, “man has always taken on goals and challenges to improve himself.  Music has been no exception.” And secondly, he seeks to expand the range of the double bass violin.  He tells us: “Due to its large size, the doubled bass has posed a challenge for musicians who wish to interpret works composed for other instruments.”

Since he is on a mission to prove the contra-bass is capable of performing compositions conceived for the lead violin, Carlos chooses some of the most difficult literature to perform. For instance, the 24th Caprice is considered by violinists to be one of the most difficult pieces to perform ever written for solo violin. The performer must successfully negotiate such obstacles as Parallel octaves and rapid shifting covering several intervals. Plus, extremely fast scales and arpeggios including minor scales in thirds and tenths, left hand Pizzicato, high positions, and quick string crossings.  These compositions, written and performed by Paganini, are so difficult that his contemporaries believed his mother – like Dr. Faust – made a deal with the devil bartering her son’s soul in exchange for Paganini’s musical gifts.  Yet, Carlos never missed a note!

As if he intends to really stick it to the naysayers, Carlos performs these compositions pizzicato rather than bowing.  He explained the challenge he has undertaken in the present concert as “the interpretation of three Caprices by Paganini written specifically for the violin, played in pizzicato something never before accomplished with the double bass, which entails a double challenge – the technical and the musical…My interpretation will remain for future generations.”

For the musically tutored observer it was breathtaking to watch, the performance was flawless, Carlos performed this historic feat with the apparent effortlessness of the true virtuoso that can make the exceedingly difficult look easy. To observe how difficult this work is to play for a violinist with a bow, see the video at the end of this essay.  It will give the reader some idea of the magnitude of Carlos’ extraordinary achievement.

The marvelous versatility of his quartet enables Carlos to explore his ideas with a multi-lingual musical approach. Whereas the great majority of musicians spend a lifetime trying to master one musical idiom, Carlos and his collaborators roam across genres at will, smashing musical barriers and ignoring the conventional wisdom regarding the limits musical performance.

This is no picayune feat because the demands that Classical European music and classical Jazz makes upon the instrumentalists are very different due to the philosophy, organization and performance technique required by the two musical idioms.  For instance, European Classical music evolved in a rigidly hierarchical society where the written text reigns supreme. Hence every note is dictated by the composer’s score, and if they are members of an orchestra the instrumentalist is also subjected to the tyranny of the Conductor, who interprets the score with his baton.

Classical Jazz is a creation of Afro-Americans in the 20th century; it is the product of what Professor Bernard Bell calls “a residually oral culture where written text competes with the spoken word,” in his seminal study “The Afro-American Novel and its Tradition.” Jazz also embodies the continuous Afro-American quest for freedom, and as the quintessentially American Art Jazz is democratic, values individually liberty and promotes innovation.  It also swings to the poly-rhythms of a machine age society.

Hence, in Jazz the written score serves to set the theme and parameters of the musical conversation not dictate what the instrumentalist plays. And whereas performance styles in European music is dictated by rigid convention, the Jazz musician has been free to create new instrumental techniques to better express their musical innovations.  This is apparent in the way the double bass is played in the two idioms.

In European music it is the bottom voice of the violin section and played with a bow, in Jazz it becomes a member of the rhythm section and is played pizzicato – a technique which Afro-American musicians raised to a high art. In Jazz bowing is ornamental, and in European concert music the pizzicato is an ornament.  Hence in European Music virtuosity on the bass is achieved by bowing; the great innovation of Carlos del Pino is his performance of European masterworks pizzicato.

Chimi Nakai: Vituoso Pianist

The musicianship of the quartet, like the music they make, is beyond Category.  Pianist Chimi Nakai plays with the same technical brilliance and emotional power regardless of the idiom. And she is equally superb as soloist or accompanist to Carlos. Although a native of Osaka Japan Chemi holds a Masters Degree in Jazz performance from The Aaron Copeland School of Music at Queen’s College in New York, and has won distinction as a recording artist with her own band.

David Eure teaches Jazz violin at the New England Conservatory of Music, and is a master of the instrument whose passionate and innovative playing appears to push it to the limits of its capability.  Renowned for its voice like qualities, the violin is capable of expressing a wide rage of emotions through its tonal colors and lyrical phrasings.  David makes the most of them as his violin sings, cries and soars over the rhythm section.  He is an artist of rare gifts a virtuoso of the highest rank, as you can witness in the videos below.

David Eure: Violin Virtuosso

Percussionist Thomas Estrada, a native of Santiago de Cuba, who like Carlos was trained at the distinguished Instituto Superior de Arte is a marvel who routinely does things with traditional Cuban percussion instruments that I would not have believed possible if I had not witnessed it.  I have been playing these instruments for 50 years, saw all the greats – Francisco “Mongo” Santamaria, Carlos “Potato” Valdez, Armando Paraza, Ta Ta  Guiness, Francisco Aquabella, et al – but Estrada remains unique.  When I closed my eyes, it sounded like three people playing.

Thomas Estrda: Master Percussionist

Edgar Sanfeliz Botta was the featured vocalist with the fabulous four.  He is the kind of electrifying singer on whom Latin musicians confer the honorific “El Gran Sonoro,” and like the rest of the band it was clear that he can sing in a variety of styles.  He has performed with a number of groups in Cuba, and holds an honors degree in vocal performance from Florida International University.  In January 2012 he had the honor of singing for Pope Benedict XVI.

By any measure this was an all-star cast, fully up to the challenge of pathbreaking performance.  They belong to that rare class of gifted versatile musicians such as Wynton Marsalis, Herbie Hancock, Hubert Laws, and Carlos’ Afro-Cuban countrymen Chucho Valdez, Arturo Sandoval and Piquito d’Rivera who speak various musical languages without accent.   It was an affair to remember.

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Text and Photographs by:

Playthell G, Benjamin

Harlem, New York

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