The 2004 Puerto Rico Heineken JazzFest
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?