The 2004 Puerto Rico Heineken JazzFest
The 14th edition of the Puerto Rico Heineken JazzFest 2004, dedicated to Gato Barbieri, was held at the Tito Puente Amphitheater on June 3-6. Musical festivities, however, started at the stylish lobby of the San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino with guitarist Steve Khan dropping as a somewhat surprise guest on June 2.
Accompanied by a local trio, led by bassist Ramón Vázquez, Khan's noteworthy playing did not dwell on his best known fusionistic licks and entreaties when performing some Latinized materials; albeit ...even then... one's musical nature can't be denied. Khan's stringed patina, however, was most illuminating within a trio format whereupon mainstream jazz was featured. The guitarist mind remains as fertile as ever, his sound and tone was simply rock-solid and the audience was thrilled to have such an artist in their midst as they were captivated by his fingered prowess. Furthermore, some of the local students associated with the highly successful and beloved Berklee in Puerto Rico student big band were also present, as well as some of the members of the Berklee Professors Band such as bassist Oscar Stagnaro and percussionist Eguie Castrillo. Since this year Berklee in Puerto Rico ended up offering more than $97,000 in scholarships for local students to attend Berklee in Boston ...as part of a nine year investment of more than $500,000 in local musical talent... eager students where just eating up the chance ...their young age notwithstanding... of gaining any edge in their quest for such funds.
This year's festival opener, however, was a somewhat unexpected surprise. JerseyRican trombonist Jimmy Bosch led a salsa-jam band on June 3rd ...certainly not a jazz act... mostly composed of New York based musicians such as timbalero Nicky Marrero, bassist Rubén Rodr'-guez ...who also performed with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra on June 6... and baritone sax and flautist Mauricio Smith, Jr., as well as some local talent ...such as trumpeter Angie Machado.
With the exception of "Vengo a cantar ...grittily and tastefully vocalized by Juan Rey Bayona... the rest of the material derived from Bosch's two recordings as a leader Salsa dura and Soneando trombón. "Otra oportunidad ...an anthem to the possibilities and consequences of positive personal change in one's life... was followed by "La cacharra ...an anthem to the well known frustrations experienced by all those who ever depended on a vehicle that repeatedly breaks down. The band was just getting warmed up and gelling into increasing heat, which became more evident ...even dominant... throughout the rest of the set. By the time Wayne Shorter's "Speak No Evil was performed, Bosch and company had an almost full-house audience at the amphitheater eating from their hands ...in spite of the fact that most in attendance were there to see Spyro Gyra.
Bosch's type of aggressive New York of salsa is sorely missed in the market today ...particularly in Puerto Rico itself... and it was rather difficult for all to sit and listen to what was highly danceable music. In fact, eventually everyone was up and shaking' their rears to a series of solos that ranged from able and somewhat accomplished, to outright brilliant ...particularly from Bosch, Rodr'-guez and Smith, Jr. The ensemble playing was increasingly tight as the performance progressed and one had the feeling that they were getting started just when they had to leave after a second encore.
Spyro Gyra, featuring drummer Ludwig Alfonso ...their newest member... were enthusiastically awaited and received. They certainly are not my cup of tea but ...both as a so-called critic and member of the audience... I owe them to take their obvious talent on their own terms rather than imposing unwarranted expectations, musical standards or mere matters of personal taste upon them. A musical group with such a proven musical and commercial track record simply can't be ignored without loosing much in the process. This was the first time I had the chance of seeing them live and they sure showed why they are rapidly approaching three decades of more than 100 performances a year. They seem to be cherished in Puerto Rico and the audience thoroughly enjoyed their performances.
Some of the material, such as bassist Scott Ambush's "Wiggle Room, guitarist Julio Fernández's "The Crossing, and Jay Beckenstein's "Soburg Sam, was from the latest release The Deep End. Keyboardist Tom Schuman obviously took pleasure in teasing everyone with some montuno piano figures in cuts such as "Calle Ocho ...named after the famed Miami street... as the rest of the group performed engaging solos and remarkably tight ensemble playing. Of course, Spyro Gyra also treated the audience with other compositions from their well-heeded and known repertoire ...such as "Walk To Walk, "Morning Dance and "Conversations.
As first experiences go, the group had a salutary and calming effect on me, while many people in the audience ...including three people sitting directly in front of the stage... were just having a funky time on their seats. Spyro Gyra's brand of jazz is not as smooth or popish as I expected, nor were they as engaging as I wished. Then again, who's going to argue with such a successful and talented bunch that managed to follow a hard-core salsa act with such remarkable results among several thousand in attendance?