The 2004 Puerto Rico Heineken JazzFest
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.