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Back Roads Beat

The 2007 Riviera Maya Jazz Festival: Almost Free For You Today

By Published: January 30, 2008
Attendance at the first festival, highlighted by the Caribbean Jazz Project, was estimated at several hundred. That increased to 4,000 and 6,000 in subsequent years (featuring George Duke and Mint Condition, respectively). The upward trend continued last year when Kool & The Gang were featured and officials said more than 10,000 people attended each night of this year's festival. As a result, Toussaint said expanding the traditional three-day event is being considered.

"Next year we might be able to do it the whole week," he said.

The government's tourism board handles expenses and sponsors, and while "we still have to be selective (about musicians), nowadays it's names first and then the money," Toussaint said.

If there is a love-it-or-hate-it quality to the Riviera Maya resort scene, count this year's visiting musicians among the former.

"We have four days off after the show, and then we're going to Japan and it's going to be very cold there," said Miller, noting he's been to Cancun a few times on non-playing trips. "So I'm going to try to enjoy these two days."

It helped the players were staying at a luxury hotel in downtown Playa del Carmen, a few blocks from the beach hosting the festival, instead of a bumpy 45-minute drive away at the resort where the junket participants commuted from twice a day for press conferences and concerts (plus usually another hour to reach afternoon cultural activities scheduled by our hosts). That also put the players near the long pedestrian street mall and other featured attractions of the city.

"I think the greatest thing about this hotel is the parking lot," Benson joked, pointing to an expensive gold watch on his wrist. "When you go out there, you can buy one of these."

Gritty Beer And Smooth Music

If those counterfeit watches sold by street hustlers are a little slow, no problem. They're ideal for getting to the festival at the proper time.

Opening night concerts started more than hour past the 8 p.m. scheduled start. Listeners walking to the beach — all but VIP vehicles (the press van was privileged) were kept several blocks away — mostly clustered on blankets and folding chairs in the sand. Weather was favorable aside from some moderate ocean breezes, making burgers from a grill and Cervecera from vendors wandering with buckets a tad gritty at times. Some bands were heavy on the dance rhythms, but it seemed to be a nod-and-sway rather than get-up-and-groove crowd.

Kicking things off was an unlisted ceremonial dance and drum performance by a Mayan ensemble in those lavish "traditional" costumes with no practical value in harvest or battle (admittedly they're cool, I'm just saying...). Then came a few announcements in Spanish—as were most introductions and dialogue by musicians between songs, which accounts for an occasional lack of details—before Aguamala took the stage.

They didn't waste time, launching into the extreme rapid funk of Michael Brecker's "Skunk Funk" from the opening note, with the horns, organ and drums establishing themselves as the dominant presence that would remain throughout the set. Touissaint, playing here in addition to the show with his brothers the final night, broke this and many others songs into sections of offbeat syncopation, much like Dave Weckl's fusion ensembles, if not as complex. Bassist Luis Ernesto López repeat slapping tones were reminiscent of Miller and guitarist Bernardo Ron played fairly straight rock/fusion in a tone resembling Larry Carlton (if all this sounds like a late '80s/early '90s, so did much of the music). Keyboardist Enrique Pat also kept his timbres straight while emphasizing single notes of middling verbosity over heavy chording, mixing in enough discordance to provide a commendable amount of spice.

Solos were more safe bridges than statements of elaboration, often lasting no more than eight or 16 bars. The first surprise came on the second song, "Baaxal," with Pat suddenly shifting his piano tone into a heavy two-handed chord-and-note exchange, managing to take the dialogue far and wide despite keeping both hands in a narrow midrange for more than three minutes. Sadly, it did not get the crowd reaction it deserved.

Among the more popular moments were the appearance of Mark Anderson, playing congas and bongos, halfway through the show and vocalist Caro Montes, joined by a backup quintet, on a mid-tempo Latin- tinged finale. The latter was thankfully light on pop deva cheesiness, with the quintet supporting rather than distracting from Montes' assertive low-range vocals.

Nothing about the concert stood out as particularly remarkable for me as a fan of extended and daring solos, but the group proved to be the favorite Mexican band among those I talked to in the junket van.


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