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Back Roads Beat

The 2006 Panama Jazz Festival

By Published: February 7, 2006
"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.

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