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Back Roads Beat

The 2006 Panama Jazz Festival

By Published: February 7, 2006
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.


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.

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