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Back Roads Beat

The 2006 Panama Jazz Festival

By Published: February 7, 2006
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.



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