In Like Flynn

"For me this album was a daunting endeavor," the pianist admits. "Lecuona is very difficult because it's very complex piano. He was a musician with extraordinary pianistic skills. I had played most of the compositions on the album over the years, and in preparation for the recording I began to read them all again."

Flynn reads music in Braille, memorizing a small section at a time. While this method is efficient enough and has given him access to an abundance of material by European and American composers, he has experienced problems when learning the work of Cuban composers whose work is not available in Braille. He could not play Lecuona's music until the early Sixties, and then only through the efforts of his friend Armando Romeu Gonzalez, the conductor of Havana's Tropicana Orchestra at the time. Romeu learned Braille so that he could transcribe Lecuona's compositions with Flynn.

"Classical Cuban music has not had a lot of diffusion," laments Flynn. He hopes to record an album of nineteenth-century pianist Manuel Samuell's work soon. Flynn's black tortoiseshell glasses stand out against a pale complexion dotted with age spots where freckles must once have been. Short and stocky, he wears loose trousers and wingtips, and except for a T-shirt emblazoned with a loud tropical design -- a souvenir from his recent tour of Japan with a Tropicana-style Cuban extravaganza -- he resembles a tough Irish-American detective out of a Forties film noir. His father was an American of Irish descent from Philadelphia. He met the pianist's Cuban mother while she vacationed in the United States. The couple married and settled in Havana. When Flynn was born, a doctor's overzealous use of forceps to bring him into the world permanently damaged his sight. As a child he could make out light, colors, and shadows, but he gradually went totally blind.

The musician remembers his mother as "a good hostess," and the piano that enlivened her weekly parties captured his attention at a young age. While still a toddler he would climb up on the piano stool and try to figure out the songs he had heard. Soon after, his mother died and his father returned to Philadelphia, leaving him with an aunt and uncle. They sent him to school at the Cuban Association of the Blind. When Flynn was fifteen, a Cuban music professor who had studied in Europe brought Braille sheet music to the island, and Flynn began his formal music studies.

In the Forties he fell in with young musicians who, like him, were fans of American music. He formed a group called Loquibambia that included vocalist Omara Portuando, singer-composer Jose Antonio Mendez, and guitarist Alberto Menendez (now a Miami resident). "We and other bands started writing songs that, harmonically, had a certain American touch about them," Flynn remembers. "The thing was to take a song and give it the kinds of harmonies and melodies that we heard Sinatra or Nat King Cole sing." The jazzy incarnation of bolero was called filin, a style that remained popular until the Sixties, when it was supplanted by the folky nueva trova movement, whose socially minded songs were more in sync with the ideology of the revolution.

Eventually Flynn moved on to lead in the five-man combo Grupo Cubano de Musica Moderna, which devoted itself to a hybrid of Cuban rhythms and jazz-based improvisation that had become known as Latin jazz. "In the Fifties and Sixties, Frank Emilio and his quintet nurtured the Latin jazz style. They were a model for a lot of groups and for individual musicians," says the 56-year-old Valdes. Considered the leading Cuban jazz pianist of his generation, Valdes recently signed a deal with Blue Note Records through the company's Canadian subsidiary. "I went to all of [Flynn's] concerts until, listening to him, I discovered my own personality."

Los Amigos has existed since the late Fifties in some form as a side band for a fluctuating group of Cuban talents; the group's format was fashioned after the infamous all-night descargas recorded in Havana's Panart studio. Pianist Pedro Justiz, known as Peruchin, led Los Amigos until he died in 1977. Then Flynn stepped in. In 1996 one incarnation of the group recorded the album Barbarisimo, released in the United States last year on Milan Latino. A slightly different lineup appeared at Lincoln Center.

"Our goal is to keep this going," Flynn emphasizes. "Inevitably what we play is going to have a more modern sound, but I want to maintain the acoustic instruments and to preserve the old genres -- especially the danzon, which I consider the Cuban genre par excellence."

Having released his first two albums in the United States since the Sixties, Flynn chats excitedly about future projects and the hope of re-releasing some old recordings he did on the Cuban Egrem label. Valdes shares his enthusiasm.

"Frank Emilio is a pianist who has influenced every subsequent generation, and those to come, because he's kept up-to-date," notes Valdes. "You can't talk about Frank Emilio in the past because he's still very much present, and he carries with him a legacy of positive, creative influences for the young talents in Latin jazz.

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