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Live Reviews

The 2004 Puerto Rico Heineken JazzFest

By Published: August 4, 2004
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.

Index: Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4

Day 1

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?



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Day 2

On the second night of the JazzFest, on June 4th local lovers of jazz ...Latin or otherwise... braved the possibility of Friday evening showers, and three rather unknown acts throughout the island. By the end of the night, all had left indelible memories among those in attendance. Whether all those reminiscences would be positive or negative is another matter altogether...



The opening act by multi-instrumentalist Edgar Abraham, a local cat, was ominously announced by a voice recording stating that he was "the best saxophonist in Puerto Rico. Apparently, saxophonists such as David Sánchez and Miguel Zenón, now New York residents don't matter much in that regard, neither do José "Chegüito Encarnación ...who's now teaching in Wisconsin.



Abraham featured material from his latest release All Around rather than his previous album Latin Sax Moods. Abraham is obviously talented, both as a performer and writer. As we all know, however, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing... His main machete ...or ax in jazzy musical parlance... is the alto sax. As such, he has a broad ...somewhat dry-yet-powerful tone. Technique abounds, although he tends to rely on clichéd Latinized boppish thinking. The theatrics in his clothing, delivery, presentation and demeanor, nonetheless, were truly insufferable, distracting and uncalled for. Jazz, generally speaking, has a low tolerance for jesters ...or unwarrantedly self-absorbed and self-important figures· and Abraham could easily become a willing victim of a critical and popular backlash in that regard, particularly among international audiences beyond Caribbean shores. What I ...and all of the foreign correspondents in attendance I had the chance of double checking my opinions with... consider foolish behavior, however, could very well be seen as amenable feistiness, colorful staging, packaged in a highly energetic display of eagerness and desire to draw in those put off by the type of staid self-importance that characterizes many jazz performers. The latter concern, however, is non-existing in Puerto Rico.



His ingenuity as a writer was showcased in "Batata ...which he described as an aguinaldo from the Levittown neighborhood. Both pianist Antonio Renovales ...the oldest and wisest musician of the sextet... and guitarist Francisco "Pancho Irizarry ...yet another older performer that was commonly lost in the sonic hyperactivity and over the top freneticism displayed and encouraged by their young leader· displayed good taste, discipline, inventiveness and very nice dynamics in their performances. In "Un cigarro y tú en mi pensamiento, Abraham was mellower, more musical and melodic relying less on gimmicks and feverish over playing. "Caliente, dedicated to Barbieri, was a solo piano performance by Abraham that was highly forgettable due to its garbled speediness ...particularly on his right hand. "Pa' Africa featured passages with the leader performing on a five string guitar bass that didn't quite add anything of substance to the presentation. Although Abraham featured his highly skilled, knowledgeable and veteran violinist father on "Café Prieto ...as well as singer Nydia Caro in an extremely forgettable and expendable rendition of "Summertime ... his set was a musical ego trip best left aside. If he were to run a marathon before each performance, allow his fellow musicians greater participation, and be less egotistical, Abraham would please his audiences much more.



Along came Jamaican pianist Monty Alexander with a tribute to Bob Marley... What a musical blessing! Accompanied by New York based bassist Hassan Shakur, Alexander relied on musicians from "The Biggest Little Island in the World for rounding up his supporting cast featuring Desmond Jones as drummer, Wendel "Junior Jazz Ferraro on guitar and vocals, Horace James on keyboards and ...I think· Robert Thomas, Jr. on percussion.



Alexander's career isn't the most popular one in Puerto Rico, although he couldn't have picked a better way to introduce his craft to the core jazz audience of the island than to pay homage to rastafari's best-known messenger. In effect, by the second performance of the set all of his recordings for sale at the festival sold out. Aside from shrewdly used references to Moisés Simmons' "El manisero ...the first Cuban international musical hit... and Count Basie within his soloing, Alexander jazzified the performed compositions with his variegated musical conceptions, style and manner of performance.



It would be iniquitous to peg Alexander to anything other than just high-quality music, as he isn't just a jazz+calypso+rocksteady+reggae+Latin plus whatever-the-hell-you-might-care-to-add musician. When, for example, the poignant "No Woman No Cry was interpreted, the audience spontaneously joined in providing back-up vocals to the clear delight of the musicians on stage. Ferraro's singing was rightfully well embraced and all in attendance knew that "ev'rything's was gonna be alright. Indeed, it was. The interpretation of "Movement of Jah People/Exodus was particularly inspiring as Shakur's acoustic bass added a well rounded and heavy bottomed, woodsy-jazz earthiness otherwise unavailable through the use of a guitar bass. Jones is quite a superb drummer whose touch was quite tasty and driven, with just enough flash and edge to keep matters utterly interesting. James' keyboarding offered the type of ensemble support that is commonly taken for granted but one has the feeling that the guy is simply a monster musician very comfortable in a supporting role and whose absence would've impoverished the performance. Alexander's piano playing was characterized by a harmonic melodicism, enough percussive muscle and conceptual depth, to please the harshest critic, as well as the most demanding audience. Judging by the standing ovations, Puerto Rico welcomed him wholeheartedly.



The concluding act of the night was a steroidal Afro Cuban jazz group featuring Jon Ball on reeds and flute, Charles Flores on five string guitar bass, Horacio "El negro Hernández on drums and local favorite Giovanni Hidalgo on timbales and four congas, under the leadership of Antonio "Tony Pérez in the piano. Tall and handsome, elegantly dressed in a white suit, with a red shirt ...the colors of the Afro Cuban deity Changó... Pérez came to the stage deeply moved for having the opportunity to perform in Puerto Rico with a childhood friend ...Flores... and two of his favorite musicians ever ...Hernández and Hidalgo. Therein, musical "thunder and lighting ensued for quite an extensive and intensive set.



Pérez is yet another hyper-talented Cuban musician, who left his native island for the U.S.A., and has been leaving his mark in the Boston area, as well as in New York. He was the heir apparent to Jesús "Chucho Valdés during the last legs of the famed Irakere group and his performances at the festival were largely based on the material from his release entitled From Enchantment and Timba... To Full Force Jazz. As titles go, the latter is quite an accurate description of his repertoire, the pianist's personality, as well as his talent and writing aptitude.



Although the musicians are not a permanent group, and most likely never performed together as a unit before, they were able to tighten up well enough to pull off enormously challenging changes and tempos. "Joemma, one of the few compositions not featured in his aforementioned release, featured Pérez's take on prepared piano for a few introductory choruses, and it was one of the slowest performances in terms of tempo whereupon some melodic strains were squeezed from his harmonically and percussively dominated style of piano playing. Bassist Oscar Stagnaro, who was present as part of the Berklee Professors Band, was a guest performer in "La Danza. Stagnaro is best known for his participation in Paquito D'Rivera's group and it was a delight to see him perform in a different musical setting. The master guitar bassist issued ideal bluesy-jazz stuff at the level of his remarkable peers on stage. Pérez dedicated "Jazzy, a Willie Colón composition from the 60s, to the festival and these Afro Cuban jazz supermen performed as if they were a musical League of Justice ...I leave to the reader's imagination who's which superhero.



In "La diferencia, Hidalgo issued the first of several overwhelming solos ...that by now are getting a wee-bit familiar... which tickled the audience to no end nonetheless. Credit reedman and flutist Ball with having the cojones to hang in there with the monsters behind him, to Hernández's ability to fit his polydextrous abstractions within the musical context, and Flores' Cuban bass gordura ...or sheer thickness... and spaciously toned conceptions. Monty Alexander, who's no slouch as a pianist himself, was having quite a good time on backstage watching Pérez and the rest of the fellows. His tender smile never left his countenance during the entire performance. Do we have to wonder why?



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Day 3



Saturday evening, on June 5th, marked the third night of the Puerto Rico Heineken JazzFest 2004. It was a much-anticipated occasion as the festival's honoree, Gato Barbieri, was going to perform, as well as the justly celebrated singer Dianne Reeves. Although all the dates of the festival were well attended, "there was no room in the inn on this night at the Tito Puente Amphitheater. The function was oversold and people were turned away at the door, as even more wishful attendees were hawking press or VIP passes ...through any possible means... to no avail. There were people sitting and standing everywhere.



On what proved to be the most humid night of the festival, to the chagrin of some of the musicians on stage who were inevitably exposed to the heat produced by both atmospheric and stage lighting conditions, Tito de Gracia y su Naoka Jam were on track to start things up.



Rafael "Tito de Gracia, according to an interview in the En Rojo section of Claridad, a local communist/socialist newspaper, was nicknamed as such by his mother because of her fondness for the music of Ernesto "Tito Puente. What could've proven to be quite a heavy burden to bear turned out to be a motivator as de Gracia is an established salsa timbale player. Naoka Jam isn't, nonetheless, just about salsa or any other similar danceable style. The octet, composed of José Alvarado on bass, the leader on a traps and timbale set, Gamalier González on trombone, Fernando Marcano as trumpeter, Manuel Pelallo on tenor and soprano saxophone, Ramón Rodr'-guez on bongos, Raúl Rosario on congas and Juan Carlos Sierra as pianist performed almost the entire repertoire of de Gracia's first recording My Latin Roots ...with the sole exception of Barbieri's "She is Michelle, dedicated to de Gracia's mother.



The previously mentioned composition, however, featured solos from all wind players ...as well as the bongo player. There are few bongo players that can truly hold a candle to comparative superlative developments in conga and timbale performances and Rodr'-guez's wasn't an exception in that regard. His ensemble playing, nonetheless, was fine. As for the wind section, González is a first call trombone player for salsa sessions and he manages jazzier language with grit, fullness, fine technique and blowing control, as well as ease. Marcano just relished the opportunity for soloing and performing jazz ...doing perfectly fine... and Pelallo wasn't about to be left behind on sax either.



Naoka Jam was a tight, swinging, jazzy group that interpreted material mostly composed by the leader in which bomba coalesced with blues on Charlie Parker's "Billie's Bounce ...with fine piano and 'bone solos. Their set started with a Cuban instrumental songo à la Puerto Rico, followed with a cha based "Cloudy Day . There was a jazzified salsa called "Sueños and a batá led 6/8 ...with David Rosado Cuba as special guest on the Iyá drum... that proved quite delightful. Their music was highly danceable, taking the form of accessible jams, which the public ...and most critics in attendance... clearly appreciated.



Gato Barbieri... He might be going blind, but his playing is ageless. The Argentinean's trademark look was unchanged in a tropical environment, with the possible "compromise of wearing a linen jacket. Bassist Mario Rodr'-guez, drummer Diego López, percussionist Roberto Quintero and keyboardist Mark Soskin accompanied Barbieri whose last presentation in the island was two years ago.



A set that started with a captivating version of the bolero Cuando vuelva a tu lado ...in which the overall high quality sonic contours of their entire presentation were already apparent... served as aperitif for Europa. In it, Soskin and Rodr'-guez were particularly inspiring and inspired. The keyboardist is extremely bright in touch and ideas. His right hand playing was truthfully attractive as his left hand playing was freed by the Uruguayan's massive guitar bass licks, sound, and tone. "Summer Time featured chacarera-influenced passages with corresponding 6/8 swingingly hot percussion choruses whereupon Quintero towed his companions mercilessly in a refreshing display of ambidextrousness. Chacarera, a term laden with agricultural connotations in its original linguistic context, has been described in sociological terms as a meeting of working people. Such attributions wouldn't exclude what both Barbieri and his group did.



The leader's dryly melodic vigor remains largely untouched in his tone, adding occasional zings to the most melodic sections of the presentation, which were always devoid of any predictable smooth sappiness. Bolivia, was a tribute to Ché Guevara. The latter was a contemporary of Barbieri and grew up three blocks away from him ...although they never met. It featured a recitation, a cumbia rhythmic backdrop and the leader performing musical abstractions on a wooden five-holed flute. Marvin Gaye's "I Want You was funky, lovingly romantic yet viagraized. Barbieri has never been fond of public speeches and the presentation of two works of arts, as part of the ceremonies honoring his work, were mercifully brief as he rather allowed his performance to communicate his gratefulness and feelings. In that regard, Barbieri was extremely eloquent and the vociferous and encouraging audience obviously got it...



The last time I saw Dianne Reeves, she performed in a cavernous concert hall in South Florida. Having the opportunity of enjoying her noteworthy singing just a few miles from where I grew up ...and just within a few feet of her... was indescribable. Yet, when pianist Peter Martin and drummer Greg Hutchinson showed up ...without Reuben Rogers in tow... I began to wonder how the gig would turn out. Bassist James Genus was subbing for him.



The fact that Rogers wasn't necessarily missed is a testament to the professionalism of Genus and the rest of the group, including Reeves. Eight songs were performed and Reeves was even sweating through her legs, albeit clearly delighted to exhibit her craft to an appreciative audience that stuck longer with her than I expected. By the end of her second encore, we were closing on one o'clock in the morning on a muggy tropical night.



Reeves simply kicked ass! No words needed uttering ...in song or vocalese form... in order for her to have the audience wound up by her imposing presence. Reeves sung her heart out from the outset as she opened with "Morning Has Broken. Her renditions of "Afro Blue and "Skylark were particularly pleasing as she would sing sitting down, as well as dancing 'round. As a matter of fact, at one point she managed to dance ...whether consciously or subconsciously really doesn't matter... in veritable rumba steps echando un pie with the best of them. Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes, and "I Remember Sarah, displayed a particular type of collective musical sensitivity, from all musicians involved, that lends further credence to the epic talent on stage. It was also particularly satisfying to witness several ovations for Martin, whose piano playing was ...as usual... peerless.

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Day 4

June 6th was the end of the 2004 edition of the Puerto Rico Heineken JazzFest. It also marked the 10th Anniversary of the Berklee in Puerto Rico Student Big Band presentation, which the rain marred by sending most of the audience fleeing for cover and silencing the amplification of the reed section during the performance of "Samba de Carrera. Larry Monroe's "Blues With the Best of Intentions did exhibit the incipient extant talent. The ensemble gets an ever increasing jazzier vocabulary every year, more middle-aged technique ...which always requires street tempering... and a greater sense of the kind of team work such an ensemble requires. Scott De Ogburn, the trumpet player for the Berklee Professors Band, directed the two pieces performed this year. The timbale player, the oldest member of the trombone section, the acoustic bassist ...dwarfed by the size of the instrument... and some of the reedmen, seem ready for further challenges.



The Berklee Professors Band performed before the student's presentation, nonetheless. Under the direction of altoist Larry Monroe, Greg Badolato on tenor, guitarist Mark White, De Ogburn as trumpeter, Jeff "Bad Ass Galindo on trombone, pianist Tony Germain, bassist Oscar Stagnaro, drummer Ron Savage, Eguie Castrillo on congas and singer Donna McElroy "arrested the audience with plenty of jazzy swing, smart charts, and selfless ensemble playing.



In "Bonga, written by White, Galindo elicited some nasty funky swing off his trombone, which also left its mark on McElroy's "I Got Arrested, which in turn also featured the aforementioned guitarist. The latter tune is one of the highlights of last year's recording of the festival. The dynamic singer was visiting the festival again and she might've been cold at the hotel ...as she related to the audience... but she was hot on stage offering a lesson in vocal dynamics, superb taste and, as she put it: "a little vocalese never hurt anyone. All members of the band had the chance at soloing and their statements were at the level expected from such a distinguished faculty.



Duduka Da Fonseca, Romero Lubambo and Nilson Matta are Trio da Paz. Their music could, and has been described, as having elements of Brazilian bop, chamber jazz and various musical strains from their native land ...which by any definition simply means jazz. Since all three members of the group are masters of their craft, it would be rather easy to gloss over their immense endowments in terms of their truly notable cohesion as a trio, enviable technique, measureless deepness, highly emotive impact upon an audience, as well as their encyclopedic sensibility. Those gathered at the festival sure had appreciation for a trio that managed to speak so profoundly ...yet accessibly... in various musical lingoes coalesced into their own expression of improvised musical beauty.



There were no bolts from the blue in the repertoire; the surprises were ensconced in what they did with it. "Bachiáo, for example, was their take on the music from Salvador, the capital city of the state of Bahia, with Bach's harmonic concepts. Bahia is the most Africanized epicenter of Brazil. Bach certainly can't be described as African. Trio da Paz's acute, stirring and under-powering rhythmic pulses, however, were magnificently interpreted within Bach's essential harmonies whereupon ethnicity becomes superseded and elevated into a higher musical form of expression. "Take Five was rendered in a ternary time key. Its melodic underpinnings, however, sound so "Brazilian ...which help explain why it is the best selling jazz single ever... that its altered signature key could hardly throw off the most comfortable binary neural preference human beings share in musical matters. Rest assured, however, that "Take Five: In 3 ...if you may... wasn't just a tempo gimmick. The trio managed to ...both collectively and individually... deepen that jazz classic and mine unexplored venues to the delight and awe of all present. "Baden was simply a phenomenal chamber jazz performance and "Corcovado as an encore was a bidding farewell for an invitation to bring them back to Puerto Rico as soon as possible.



Having the Lincoln Center's Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra (ALJO) as closers of the 2004 Puerto Rico Heineken JazzFest was quite an inspired decision. Originally, the Cuban band Los Van Van was scheduled ...even though it was unlikely that they would come for reasons that aren't entirely political in nature.



The ALJO offered masterful, memorable, swinging, danceable and highly advanced interpretations of various canonical pieces from the Latin mambo Big Band era, from the Chico O'Farrill, Mario Bauzá & Machito, as well as Tito Puente repertoires, including the entire "Afro Cuban Jazz Suite ...which, as Mike Myers' character in Sprockets would say, made me feel "as happy as a little girl. "Wild Jungle, "En la oscuridad ...where Mario "El Comandante Rivera uttered just one of many superb solos throughout the set... "Sambia, "Havana Blues, "Mambo Birdland, "3-D Mambo, "Kenya, and "Para los rumberos were also featured.



"Humility and "Iron Jungle, however, were commissioned pieces ...including a fantastic composition by Tom Harrell... that portend quite a future for an ensemble that should eventually grow by leaps and bounds beyond a classic and rightfully beloved musical past. Under the direction of Aturo O'Farrill, 18 musicians took turns showcasing how is done both in terms of large ensemble playing, as well as individual soloing. The one possible exception was altoist Erica von Kleist who simply doesn't have the potency to hang with such a group. It isn't a matter of not being able to play at the same level of her already distinguished peers in terms of technique, ideas, swing, intelligence and taste ...is just a matter of sound projection. Her alto playing languished behind in that regard and one hopes that her inclusion in the ALJO is not an issue of PCitis as several equally worthy male counterparts from the Big Apple come readily to mind. Listening to the ALJO was one of the most privileged musical experiences I've had in my life and worth the investment in time and money to see them at the Lincoln Center in New York, or anywhere else for that matter.



I would like to thank the following people and institutions ...in no particular order... for having the opportunity to cover this event and their respective support: The staff at All About Jazz, Torres Toro & de Haro Media Management, RetailNet, Edelman and Grandes Eventos, as well as Joey Salas of Sala Creativa and Mr. Luis Álvarez of Méndez and Co. "Muchas gracias y cariño to Marta S. Albanese Bras of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company, as well as the hyper professional staff at the Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino. I also had a great time with Dick Bogle, Larry Appelbaum of Jazz Times, Mark Ruffin of Downbeat, Daniel Furuno of Sucesso Magazine, Charles Belle, Elmer González, Tommy Muriel, Jaime and José Rodr'-guez.



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