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Back Roads Beat

The 2006 Panama Jazz Festival

By Published: February 7, 2006
Most festivals, especially new ones, make maximum use of their big-name talent to lure crowds. But for Danilo Perez. this year's test for his labor of love was standing it on its own two legs.



The Panama native and favorite son scarcely played a note during the third annual Panama Jazz Festival from Feb. 19-21, in contrast to his full-length concerts many considered the highlight of the first two years. The pianist and founder of the festival appeared for less than 30 minutes during an all-star big band finale where the biggest contributions came from other players, save that he wrote the featured composition.



Perez, now living in Boston, has spent years trying to revive a jazz identity in a country pulled in so many directions by outside cultural influences that its past is largely undocumented. There's also the stigma of notable political issues that have given the country a negative image in much of the world. But with a cultural identity now showing signs of development, Perez said he wants audiences appreciating other established musicians and a growing roster of in-country talent.



"I don't want them focusing on me," he said.



Not that Perez was idle or lacking his usual idol status. From introducing all the performers to making sure everyone was comfortable backstage, he was a non-stop hands-on presence in and out of public view throughout. His name was invariably the first mentioned by Panama residents asked about their favorite jazz musicians and the applause anytime he appeared was hearty.



Listeners finding their attention directed elsewhere heard mostly solid shows and a few exceptional ones at a festival that, if not yet ready to directly compete with the major league Latin festivals, seems to emphasize quality over commercial popularity.



Highlights ranged from a children's traditional Panamanian folk ensemble to 78-year-old pianist Randy Weston's African Rhythms groups. Other notable foreigners included guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel and saxophonist David Sanchez, plus ensembles from the New England Conservatory and University of Massachusetts (the Boston-Perez connection obviously at work, with one newspaper suggesting the festival is a recruiting tool for Panamanian and South America music students). Major Panamanian billings included saxophonist Carlos Garnett, legendary trumpeter Victor "Vitin" Paz and a tribute to the equally esteemed Mauricio Smith featuring the son of the late flautist. For the sturdy, perhaps the purest moments came during crowded performances and jam sessions at usually starting after midnight at a couple of clubs.



For some foreigners, it was a chance to reestablish Panamanian connections. Weston, who's father was born in the country in 1896, spent time researching his family tree. His bassist, Alex Blake, was born in Panama and was making his first trip home since the age of 7.



Seats at the Teatro Anayansi the first two nights were perhaps one-third and one-half full, respectively, a decline from an estimated three-quarters capacity crowd attending a concert at the inaugural festival featuring Perez. But a day-long series of outdoor concerts in the Plaza Catedral featuring most of the festival artists appeared to attract higher numbers than previous years. Rough estimates of total festival attendance by officials are 2,000 for the first year, 4,000 last year and 6,000 this year.



The biggest difference from previous years was the increased presence of young musicians in the performances and a series of university workshops, according to several festival organizers and observers. For them, it's one of the most encouraging signs of success for an event with lofty goals such as increasing the struggling tourism industry and instilling a national cultural identity.



"I have seen the self esteem of the young musicians increase because they're getting the confidence to participate," Perez said. "That's a major, major advance."

A festival matching the prominence of Montreal or Montreaux is years away, but strong government support, increasing sponsorships and a willingness by established musicians such as Wayne Shorter to commit to future years for sometimes less-than-usual pay have supporters saying it's possible.



"This has the potential to be the most important festival in Latin America," said Robin Tomchin, Perez's manager and international coordinator of the festival.



The New Face Of Panama



Despite a deep and diverse history, Panama is still about a canal and a dictator for most Americans.



Historical indignities such as being conquered by various countries over the centuries and having the U.S. control its primary economic asset - the canal - for most of the past 100 years didn't do much for the national pride. It's musical history is potentially as historic as New Orleans, but there's virtually no record or recordings of those contributions.



Instead its image on the modern global stage was shaped by events such as the U.S. invasion that ousted dictator Manuel Noriega in 1989. Regaining control of the canal in 1999 was a major economic boost and the country is working aggressively to establish itself as a cultural and eco tourism destination. The industry is credited with helping boost the gross national product by 22 percent in 2005 compared to 2004, with a new cruise ship terminal in the capital for large ships and three megamalls costing $100 million each are among the costly visitor-oriented investments being made.



The country's tourism minister is Panamanian salsa star and movie actor Ruben Blades, who moved back to his homeland from the U.S. two years ago to take the job. He says part of his plan is taking visitors on tours of places where he and others played in their younger days.



The country served as a crossroads for African slaves traded by Englishmen, was conquered centuries ago by Spain, saw the French lose 22,000 lives in a futile attempt to build a canal in the 1880s, followed by the United States successfully completing the project in 1904, one year after Panama became an independent nation. All of these contributed musical influences, along with its Caribbean geography.



Pianist Luis Russell became Panama's first jazz star, moving to New Orleans in 1919 after winning $3,000 in a lottery. After a stint in Chicago he moved to New York City, leading one of the city's top bands beginning in the late 1920s - until it was taken over by Louis Armstrong, one of many notables to play with it, although Russell remained its music director. Other early-era notables include vocalist and "queen of the tamborera" Sylvia De Grasse at her peak from the 1940s to 1960s in the U.S. and Central America; pianist Papo Lucca, known for his salsa work in Puerto Rico; and organist Avelino Munoz.

Early Panamanian jazz combined American-style swing with a Caribbean accent that, according to an outstanding story on Panama's music history by Chicago Tribune reporter Howard Reich (easily found on Google - the URL is too long to include here), made it "more lyrical, more folkloric and less rhythmically agitated than its American counterpart." Reich recommends several currently available albums including accordionist Aceves Nunez's Panama En Ritmo, Vol. 1, Boa and Garnett's Legendas Del Tambo Jazz (I'll second this from personal experience), and the modern Bannaba Project's Panamanian Ethnofussion.



Musicians such as Paz and Garnett grew up listening to and performing such music during the 1940s and '50s, but the only documentation of the era beyond the memories of such players are a handful of recordings unavailable to the public. But their longevity has kept that music alive for modern generations.



"You get a lot of percussion and rhythm and feeling, along with the soul of jazz," said Panama City Mayor Juan Carlos Navarro during a tour of the city for media organizations covering the festival. His familiarity with the country's music is more than passing - he has a younger brother who played with a Latin rock group for several years and recorded five albums.



If there's a face to associate with the image of what Panama is trying to become, Navarro is it. An energetic and charismatic politician who appears to be in his 40s, the two-term leader is ready with quick and often quick-witted comments on almost any subject from serious to trivial. His narrative to reporters of the city's politics, history and economic development plans was frequently interrupted with greetings among laborers, crafts vendors in sightseeing areas and visitors. One older U.S. visitor in shorts, a colorful shirt and baseball cap was content to exchange a few words about the weather, reasonably temperate for the sunny tropical conditions.



"If you come back in October or November I can guarantee you rain," Navarro warned.



That timing was one of the mistakes learned during the inaugural festival, which took place in September, he said. Shifting it to January is one of the many small improvements experience is making possible.



"I think the festival is growing its own legs," Navarro said. "It will become more institutional...I think Danilo is also learning to do it his way. He's getting damn good at organizing the festival."



Jazz As Panamanian Folk As Jazz



Opening night featured two saxophone-led bands sandwiching a pair of Panamanian folk groups. But the middle shows offered glimpses into how the country's musical roots tie into jazz, beginning with the four-member guitar-and-vocal Cantadera featuring an apparent traditional father/freethinking daughter dispute bordering on operatic parody (not knowing Spanish, I could be way off). It ends with a hug, of course, between vocalists Tonito Vargas and Manuelito Corrales, but maybe it was part of the show-ending congratulations as Perez returned for his MC duties.



"How about that - they just improvised that on the spot," he said.



Children's groups tend to be a crowd favorite at festivals and Voces Y Tambores got the biggest crowd reaction of the night (the only immediate standing ovation, as best I can recall) for a tipico traditional hand drumming demonstration by two of its members under the guidance of instructor Ricaurte Villarreal. Most prominent was Milagros Blades, 11, actually a festival veteran whose drumming with Perez at an earlier festival was compared to watching 5-year-old Michael Jackson with the Jackson 5 (she's now getting credit for playing on par with musicians twice her age). The rhythms were fairly steady and basic, but unquestionably accomplished and worth listening to on merit and not just as a "kids" show.



Further evidence of promising youth came when 17-year-old Chilean saxophonist Melissa Aldena joined the group for a late jam with a tenor sharp in tone, quick in pace and well- versed in trendy vocabulary. She also made appearances at the late-night jams and university ensemble shows the final day, generally getting acclaim from audiences and co- players at each stop.



Aldena said she knows Perez because his wife, Patricia Zarate, was a student of her father. The Chilean said she is going with Perez to the U.S. after the festival to look at universities, hoping to attend Berklee College Of Music or the New England Conservatory. Like Panama, opportunities in her home country are limited. Santiago has three jazz clubs and there are talented musicians, she said, but developing her skills to the level she wants means going abroad.



"The situation there is very bad," she said. "There are vocal (pop groups), but not many places to play."



As for the featured saxophonists, my imperfect recollection is Panamanian native Carlos Garnett's quintet played a decent set, if a bit more contemporary and lighter on Latin elements than I was expecting after learning his history. He began playing in Panama at age 16 and fulfilled a dream by moving to New York in 1962. He was invited into Freddie Hubbard's band in the late 1960s and played a significant role in groups featuring Woody Shaw, Art Blakey, Miles Davis and other major names. Garnett led the Universal Black Force ensemble during the 1970s (Weston's current bassist Blake was a member), took a "spiritual hiatus" in the 1980s, and reemerged as a leader and subsequently moved back to Panama a few years ago.



There wasn't anything wrong with Garnett's set - his musings were detailed and varied - but something was lacking to inspire passion. It may have been the somewhat low key and modern slant of some pieces. But they ramped it up nicely at the end, closing with "Victor The Boa Constrictor," a tribute to the late Panamanian pianist, although the only detail I remember is being impressed enough with guitarist Rodrigo Denis to hunt him down afterward for some insight.



He said the scene in Panama is steady improving, noting "I used to play in a lot of clubs, but nobody was into it that much." But he's seen audiences pick up since the festival - he estimates 120 people were at a club show the day before the festival concert, up from maybe 40 a year ago.



"I see more interest, because we had a lot of talent before," he said.



(Incidently, a nice tidbit about Boa's music comes from a review of the festival by Eric Jackson of The Panama News, which I am shamelessly offering below.)



"Boa, by the way, called some of his work, including a disk with Garnett, 'tambo jazz,' a shorthand for fusion between traditional Panamanian tamborito and jazz. But Danilo Perez thinks that terminology is a bit misleading. 'Victor Boa was more Antilleani in his influences,' Perez opined, adding that of all the influences that go into distinctive Panamanian jazz, Antillano and calypso are more common."



The rest of Jackson's piece is worthy reading, even if the praise is a bit thick at times, with good insight into Panama's jazz scene.



David Sanchez's quartet was more aggressive and lively than Garnett's, with the Puerto Rico native generally sounding sharper and cleaner, and maybe having a bit more fun doing so. Deeper analysis gets deep-sixed here due to my lack of notes, but I spent the cab ride back to the hotel wondering if I was elevating immediate gratification over introspection - and ultimately concluding it must be really late to allow such worries to dominate brain space on a pretty good overall evening.



A bigger crowd the second night heard probably the best concerts at the theater from Weston's trio, with the Mauricio Smith tribute offering one of the more emotive moments and guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel delivering a rock-solid set of laid-back Latin fusion.



Smith son, Mauricio Jr., delivered more than merely his namesake in highlighting the set, blowing notably more assertive and cutting lines than his co-players on the closing "Eternal Struggle" and "Madera." His darting flurries and trills were well-balanced with lyrical breathings of equal skill, a diversity he said extends beyond his father's approach.



"It's kind of similar, but he's more melodic than me," he said.



Rosenwinkel's gentle-tone, rapid-note runs tend to stay even keel without dramatic sonic acrobatics, but variations such as alternating high- and low-end storylines helped sharpen their focus. The inevitable climaxes of wringing of end-of-the-fretboard notes at a flurried clip found a receptive audience and, during an interview afterward with an A&E documentary crew backstage, said it was easier to establish a "heartfelt visceral connection" than at some festivals where crowds might be more critical.



"A lot of people have probably never heard this kind of music before," he said.



(Sorry, but one more observation by Jackson in his piece too humorous not to share: "And yet, there were actually people walking out on this set. Well, yes, we do live in a country whose social and economic elites treat Mickey Mouse as the pinnacle of gringo culture, but no, I didn't expect to find that variety of plastos in a jazz crowd.")



Weston's trio made it clear from the first song they would deliver the most interactive and elaborate set of the night.



The pianist opened with a light, dancing touch while working both off-color and thudding chords into the mix. The evolution of African styles grew in intensity throughout, ending with drummer Neil Clarke working the crowd into his solo with some hand-clapping interludes. Bassist Alex Blake, who seems to be the highlight of every show he plays, introduced his maniacal thumb-slap drubbing on the subsequent song and got the first of many roars rivaling the loudest of the night. The set didn't end as strongly as it might have, as some audience members snuck out early during a fairly meditative piece possibly too subtle to overcome post-midnight fatigue.



The festival generally seemed to be an hour behind schedule the entire time, which didn't seem to bother too many people. But facing what looked like a 2 a.m. start to a jam session back at the Miramar Plaza hotel where most of the musicians were staying, I settle for taking a few extended fusion romps of tunes like "Watermelon Man" by the lead-in groups. The scene on the first two nights was definitely next-level intensity after seeing so many empty seats at the cavernous theatre, with probably a couple hundred patrons packed wall-to-wall in the smoke-filled Sparkles lounge.



I didn't spend much time trying to elbow my way to the front of the stage - I took it all in from a relatively smoke-free backroom spot while organizing my ultimately-to-be-lost notes. So in a bit more shameless blatant ripping off of material - and a suggestion to read his take - I'll note Boston Herald critic Bob Young (a festival veteran) called the jams "hot as they were illuminating. Some of Boston and Panama's best young talent strutted their stuff, including Perez's alto-playing wife, Patricia Zarate." He also called New England Conservatory grad student and trumpeter Josiah Woodson "a standout."



Heat in the street



This is how festivals are supposed to end.



The all-day outdoor showcase of bands on the final day was a bit more uneven than the theater shows, but generally got stronger as it closed and the finale was as good as anything heard this year. Compare this to some headliners at nearby festivals of considerably more prominence (think Lionel Ritchie/Barbados) and it's clear that, if nothing else, Perez has the blueprint right.



Ticket prices of $10-$30 ($5 for students) for the theater concerts weren't crushing, but definitely a luxury for many in a country where per-capita income is $7,300 a year and nearly 40 percent of people are below the poverty level.

The opening band was the University of Massachusetts group Sounds of Ashe, led by Santi Debriano, a Panama native. It was an OK set of ethnic fusion and funk - my notes on one piece read "Spyro Grya with more authenticity" - but it wasn't among the highlights. Perhaps the biggest problem was Debriano's students seemed to have absorbed his habit of relying far too much on riffs and repeats to build tension. Also, most of players seemed to have a good idea of where they wanted to go, but they weren't getting the others to follow beyond the prearranged lines.



Vocalist and pianist Patricia Vlieg, another Panama native revisiting her homeland, did a nice variety of standards and Latin (in English, Spanish and Portuguese, apparently) with a voice that was often high and perky, yet substantial. Her piano work didn't make as large an impression, but she good support from her quintet, from Rollins-like sax licks to South American acoustic guitar fingerpicking. A show by the New England Conservancy, performed at about 5 p.m. as the square was getting notably more crowded and the sun beginning to fade, was probably the most inconsistent. Outstanding compositions and individual playing mixed with entirely forgettable moments, not unexpected in a student ensemble with appearances by some outsides such as Aldena, the young Chilean saxophonist.



Rosenwinkel's second concert of the festival resonated pretty well with the crowd, even if much of the material was repeated from his Friday show since most likely weren't there. But it was missing some of the best of the first concert, such as a more extended sax solo to open "East Coast Love Affair." It also ended abruptly on somewhat tame piece, in what might have been a demand to time constraints. Still, it was encouraging to see most of the audience locked in, including young kids who were watching instead of fidgeting even during sax solos heavy on quick evolution and light on sonic drama.



Weston took his show in a somewhat different direction than the previous night, but still achieved a similar level of success both artistically and among the crowd. Opening with "St. Thomas," then following up with lively slow blues groove, the coloring by players kept straying outside conventional lines even if the compositions weren't as complex. Blake and Clarke kept up their habit of rousing the crowd on just about every solo, and the storming finale "Blues To Africa" resulted in the first call of the day for an encore (a slightly less firery "Caravane").



With the crowd properly stoked, it was an ideal setting for Perez to finally take a seat at the piano.



He played only at the end of set by the University Of Panama's Fine Arts Big Band, led by Paz, and even then the pianist's role on two songs was more as host and conductor than featured soloist. His "Panama Suite" brought legends and emerging talent alike front and center where, contrary to numerous all-star performances that are muddled disappointments, they asserted themselves with strong character while proving compatible in support. So while Villarreal and his young portage Blades helped feed a thundering percussion foundation, Paz was blowing cutting lines and Zarate somewhat more subdued ones that, much like the pianist's work, wrapped classic insight in fresh-thinking modernism. Roars for an encore were predictable, but ending things there was almost certainly the right call.



How does the festival as a whole compare to the mostly smaller festivals I've been attending around the world for the past year? It didn't have the variety or daring I remember from places like Molde, Norway, even if that festival brought in a hapless Lauryn Hill as their cash-generating headliner. Its cultural immersion didn't match memorable experiences such as two weeks in the still-resembling-13th-century village of Marciac, France. But the talent, organization and overall experience are well above other developing festivals such as in Bali, Indonesia, and Kathmandu, Nepal - and that's with my preference for the latter as a place to visit when factoring in non-festival activities.



Also, as mentioned, the Panama festival seems to be emphasizing talent and culture above generating maximum crowds by booking big-names playing sterilized music. For dedicated listeners, that may prove at least as important as the economic steps being taken when it comes to making the festival an attractive alternative to other Latin America festivals in places like Jamaica and those "smooth jazz" cruises hopping islands in the Carribean.



Coda



Sunday mornings after a festival are hangover days, even for people like me who don't drink.



Too many late nights of having the eardrums pounded, followed by days filled with taking in the sights and getting one's duties completed, are made worse by the thought of packing and moving on (for those returning to the U.S., it's now considered one of the worst place to go through customs in the world). To have some kind of cushioning music in the hotel's breakfast buffet is almost mandatory - Bach is a personal preference - so I was a bit surprised to find myself actually paying attention to a synth/electric guitar couple mostly being ignored in a corner at the entrance.



Carlos Campos, playing a synth to some occasionally programmed rhythms, and his wife, Luz, contributing vocals on many songs, played mostly the kind of standards one expects to hear at a hotel brunch. Her controlled-range singing was pleasant without doing too much to threaten the chatting/hungover crowd, but his understated keyboard solos were surprisingly authentic in development and length, one of those moments where one feels bad the effort is for naught as far as listeners go.



Turns out he was part of the all-star band Saturday night - something I overlooked due to the number of musicians and my focus on the major front-stage names - calling the suite "very hard, difficult music" and labeling Perez "the master." The hotel gig is one of three weekly shows the couple plays at various locations. Unlike most local jazz musicians who emphasize Latin, most of their playing is straight-ahead.



"We're doing a lot of different styles of jazz because you have to start with the beginning, the traditional jazz, the poco poco and the other styles," Carlos Campos said.



He has been interested in jazz for years despite few formal chances to study it ("you have to learn alone"), and played with Paz for three years after impressing the trumpeter during an audition at the local university. The hotel and restaurant gigs began when he approached them and auditioned about three years ago. Luz Campos, whose background is classical music, said she became interested and started performing a couple of years ago because of her husband's work.



The remoteness of the audience at the hotel didn't seem to bother them and they, like many other players, think more locals will focus on their music as the attempts at cultural revival take hold.



"Other people who are not musicians don't have the culture to listen to jazz," Carlos Campos said. "That is the work of Danilo right now. In the future, three to five years from now, I think it will be a very good country to come to for jazz."



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