Juan Carlos Formell is a musician that combines the musical traditions of his native Cuba with influences from throughout the Caribbean and Latin America along with the flavor and sophistication of New York, where he has resided for nearly two decades. Internationally recognized as an innovative troubadour, gifted composer, and an inspired multi-instrumentalist, his discography and list of collaborations sets him apart as one of the most accomplished cosmopolitan artists on the scene today.
Raised in Cuba in one of the most prominent families in Cuban music, he represents the fourth generation of musicians in the Formell family. His father, bassist Juan Formell, is the founder and leader of the seminal Cuban group Los Van Van, an ensemble that has been instrumental in defining the sound of Cuban music for the past forty years.
Juan Carlos first studied bass with Andres Escalona, the principal bassist for the Havana Symphony, and played guitar and began composing in his teens. He became the bass player for jazz pianist Emiliano Salvador and later left Cuba to tour Mexico as a replacement for Cachaito Lopez. After moving to New York in 1993 Formell began to establish himself as a professional bassist, guitarist and singer/songwriter. This eventually led him to work with many renowned artists such as Paul Simon, Cesaria Evora, Eliades Ochoa, Susana Baca, and Milton Nascimiento.
His debut album Songs from a Little Blue House earned him a Grammy nomination in 2000 and his subsequent albums would garner him recognition as a serious, prolific artist. Variety magazine stated that he was “opening doors to a new pan-Latin sound…” and his trio, Formellx3 –formerly Son Radical– was described by the New York Post as having “achieved the near impossible – a flavorful reduction of son-infused rock that does justice to both genres… Juan Carlos Formell hurls Cuban music into the future.” Formell states that: “Latin music in general and Cuban music in particular has been held back by a format that doesn’t work anymore. We have to demolish the cliché of Latin music as one long, loud party.”
The latest version of Formell x 3 includes the fabulous percussionist Chuito Quintero and newcomer bassist Ben Willis. Formell’s switch to twelve-string guitar has added yet another dimension to the group’s sound as the instrument’s doubled strings emulate the traditional Cuban tres used in Cuban son while providing the harmonic possibilities of a guitar fingerboard. Willis’ accompanying vocals and powerful bass complement Formell’s expressive vocals and virtuosity and the many colors of Quintero’s percussive palette combine to create a formidable ensemble that often leaves audiences baffled as to how three musicians can generate so much music. They are a fixture on the New York Cuban music scene and perform weekly at Guantanamera NYC, a bastion for Cuban music and a familiar hangout for famous and revered musicians of all genres.
Juan-Carlos Formell has performed in New York at Jazz Standard, The Blue Note, Dizzy’s Coca-Cola, The Knitting Factory, The Bowery Ballroom and The Living Room; in New Orleans at Snug Harbor; in Los Angeles at The Hollywood Bowl, McCabe’s and Temple Bar; in Chicago at HotHouse; and at jazz festivals throughout the United States including his 2011 set at the Monterey Jazz Festival that was featured on NPR’s Jazzset.