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Back Roads Beat

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

By Published: January 30, 2008
A free trip to a jazz festival near Cancun, complete with luxury trappings. All I'm expected to do in return is write something about it.

What could possibly go wrong, aside from a few meddlesome skeptics questioning my objectivity?

To them here's my assessment of the 2007 Riviera Maya Jazz Festival: Greatest. Festival. Ever.

Just kidding. A three-day, six-concert festival featuring headline shows by commercial stalwarts Marcus Miller, Tower of Power and George Benson doesn't get that honor unless the junket includes first-class plane tickets. Also, with Mexico's population historically indifferent or hostile toward jazz, the Americanized fusion played by the three regional bands was hardly ideal for capturing the country's underestimated role in the genre's development. Finally, while the rest of the media on the public relations tour mostly raved about the all-inclusive resort and daytime tour activities, I was a magnet for a comedy of mishaps confirming I'm as suited for such places as a milk bucket under a bull.

So this isn't the unabashed puffery our truly hype-worthy hosts are hoping for, but the Riviera Maya festival is a pretty good experience in a pretty good winter destination. In fact, my recommendation for people interested in unveiling the obscurity of Mexican jazz is to stay longer and go beyond the cushion of familiar luxury, something that may be aided by a longer festival in future years.

It all started with an e-mail in my spam box, alongside the impotence and weight loss ads, inviting me to the festival from November 29 to December 1.

"The Riviera Maya is emerging as one of the premiere jazz music events in the Americas. Hosted by the Riviera Maya Tourism Promotion Board, press trip participants will have the opportunity to experience a first-rate line-up for one of the most important musical events. Headlining the Festival will be legendary jazz artist George Benson along with Tower of Power, a group known for their combination of R&B, soul and jazz."

"This fully-hosted trip includes airfare from your nearest gateway city, hotel, stay, all meals and entry fees to attractions in accordance with the itinerary." The festival location, it added, was "named a Top Destination in Mexico two years in a row by Travel Weekly...and is also one of the fastest growing destinations in Mexico."

I've gotten similar pitches before. Last year an invitation to a festival in Cuba turned out to be a chance to pay my way there (and probably get arrested, thanks to U.S. restrictions) like any other visitor. But the Mexico invite was intriguing enough to invest three minutes on an e-mail, since my global tour of unusual jazz spots generally avoids tropical beach areas, which I don't particularly like. I got a response almost immediately from Stephanie Worth of the New York PR firm Adams Unlimited, and a couple of days and a few messages later I was booked for four days near some town called Playa del Carmen.

A little Web research reveals Playa del Carmen was a small fishing village that's now a tourist mecca of about 100,000 about an hour's drive from even more party-hearty Cancun. Featured attractions for the booming number of cruise ship and resort visitors include a lengthy pedestrian mall, lively nightlife scene and, of course, vast turquoise-water beaches.

The jazz festival is on one of the more popular beaches and organizers estimated more than 10,000 people a night might attend the free performances. Each night featured an opening concert by a regional band, none known to me, but one of which has been among the country's premier groups for more than two decades.

"Riviera Maya" refers to a 40-mile tourism district along the main highway from Playa del Carmen to Tulum pueblo, consisting largely of vast all-inclusive resorts, villa rentals, and recreational facilities offering things like scuba diving and jungle ATV riding.

"The resorts are generally secluded, and prevent one from experiencing the sights, sounds, and tastes of the city, and to some extent Mexican culture as well, since you will be surrounded by Western tourists and amenities," Wikipedia's travel guide notes.

No matter, I figured. I was told the city had a jazz club or two, and I figured I could scope out the local scene and learn about jazz in Mexico in general by wandering the less touristy streets during the day, which would also be the perfect opportunity to savor brain tacos and other cheap street food.

But, to quote the ominous forbearing of the awesome $7,000 action flick El Mariachi, I was completely wrong.

'Jazz Is Music For And Made By Savages'

Mexico's first jazz musicians were exiled with one-way tickets to New Orleans, setting the stage for more than a century of local hostility and global indifference toward subsequent players.

The outcasts were the national military band, sent north by the government to the 1884 Cotton Fair, said Alain Derbez, a saxophonist and author of the book "Jazz In Mexico," during a lecture at the 2002 Guelph Jazz Festival in Ontario. They made a major and generally overlooked contribution to the birth of jazz there.

"Some of these 'soldiers' had to stay there and work and never went back," he said, "some of them taught music to young guys that would turn, with the years, (into) jazz protagonists."

Mexico's earliest music was played on flutes, drums and whistles by indigenous tribes, according to a history written by Camille Collins of Mexico Connect magazine. Spaniards later introduced violins, guitars and other instruments intended for church masses, but Mexicans of Spanish descent known as criollos began playing popular music — including the first mariachis — with them during the 19th century, to the chagrin of priests. The criollos spent the latter part of the century dong "all they could to wipe out every last trace of the Spanish presence in Mexico," with one result being a flourishing in the popularity of mariachis. The Mexican revolution from 1910 to 1917 resulting in many being let go from haciendas, leaving them to wander from "town to town singing songs of revolutionary heroes and enemies, carrying news from one place to another." They slowly regained popularity during the next few decades, but to maintain commercial viability found themselves adding elements of waltzes, polkas, Cuban and jazz to their music.

While such influences meant things such as trumpets replacing traditional instruments, Mexico was hardly perceived as a nucleus of jazz. Half a century after the military band exile, Artie Shaw went a self-imposed exodus south of the border when he couldn't take the fame from his 1939 chart-topping hit "Begin The Beguine."

"I wanted to retire from the planet, not just music," the legendary clarinetist said. When he returned to the U.S. a year later he achieved another hit with an arrangement of "Frenesi," one of his favorite Mexican songs.

Major names are associated with Mexico throughout jazz's history, including Scott Joplin's composition "Mexican Ragtime," Charlie Mingus' death in Cuernavaca, rock guitarist Carlos Santana being the only Mexican jazz player in Joachim Berendt's "Book of Jazz," and drummer Antonio Sanchez becoming a member of the Pat Metheny Group and playing with a who's-who roster of modern icons such as Chick Corea, Charlie Hayden and Chris Potter. But Derbez, referring to such names in his lecture, said Mexico's jazz history is far deeper than high-profile highlights mostly relevant to the U.S. scene.

Among the historical nuggets: the Belen Jazz Band playing during the 1920s in a prison where they were kept with their audience; pliano master Mario Patron conducting his group successfully at the Newport Jazz Festival during the '50s; pianist Juan José Calatayud playing baroque and jazz long before Jacques Loussier brought his concepts from France; saxophonist Henry West and pianist Ana Ruiz teaming with Don Cherry to introduce free jazz to Mexico City during the 1970s.

A landmark date is March 5, 1954, according to Fresh Sound Records, distributor of the Jazz In Mexico: The Legendary 1954 Sessions double CD. It was "the day on which well-known jazz critic Roberto Ayala organized and produced the first recordings of jazz to be recorded in the country by Mexican musicians as pianists Mario Patrón, Pablo Jaime, saxophonists 'El Arabe,' Tommy Rodriguez, Román López, trumpeter César Molina, bassist Vicor Ruiz Pasos, and drummer Tino Contreras. From among all these jazz musicians Ayala made a rigorous selection of the most outstanding, the most authentic, to take part in the recording sessions."

Numerous early videos of jazz performances exist at Web sites such as YouTube, including one below at a Mexico City club (the host page links to numerous other clips and Web resources). According to its narrative, "jazz was at its peak in Mexico when Mexican pioneer jazz musicians Tommy Rodriguez and Chilo Moran co-founded in December 6 of 1956 the famous Jazz Bar. Located right under the nightclub Astoria at Nuevo León 16 in the Condesa neighborhood in Mexico City, it quickly became a favorite hang out for writers, politicians, musicians and jazz fans."

"It's in this bar that after his arrival in Mexico Chico O'Farrill met most of the musicians he hired for his big band. With Tommy on tenor sax and Chilo on trumpet, the house band included Pablito Jaimes on piano, Fernando El Jarocho Sandoval on bass and Luis El Patito Vargas on drums. In the Jazz Bar were also the tropical band Mangue and a dance act led by El Gran Fellove, the great Cuban scat pioneer. The popularity of this jazz band was reflected by the Mexican film Industry of that time in camera appearances and performances like in the present film 'Locos Peligrosos' (Crazzy and Dangerous) of 1957 with Germán Valdéz 'Tintan,' Luis Aguilar, Yolanda Varela, Paco Malgesto and Manuel 'Loco' Valdez."



But popularity was a relative thing as most jazz players found little acceptance among fellow citizens of a country where official music study plans "can still consider Stravinsky a sinner," according to Derbez

"All along this secular history, Mexican jazz players and composers have had to fight against prejudice and commonplaces: Jazz is music for and made by savages; jazz has to be played by black musicians, if not, it is not jazz; jazz is the music of a whorehouse; jazz is music of drug addicts, of imperialists, of insane fellows, of old men; Mexican jazz does not exist and has not existed," he said.

Mexican jazz "has not really interested those who have written about jazz in Mexico," he said. Musicians constantly struggled to find places to play, against politicians and other musicians resenting their work, to earn "unimaginable bad salaries," and with "ridiculous" distribution and promotion of recordings. Academic musicians wanted it suppressed in Mexico City during Beethoven's anniversary because they found it "as offense as the automobile horns." Jose Vasconcelos, the country's first secretary of public education, sought to forbade it altogether.

"I prohibited jazz as I prohibited bullfights, because both of them are savage demonstrations," he wrote.

One enigma is why musicians from other Latin countries such as David Sanchez, Chucho Valdez Jr. and Danilo Perez achieve such popularity in the U.S. while those of similar talent in Mexico don't, Derbez wrote in a preview of the 2001 Cancun Jazz Festival.

"Mexican musicians like the piano players Hector Infanzon and Francisco Tellez, the saxophonist Diego Maroto, the singer and keyboard player Iraida Noriega, the bassist Agustin Bernal could be there, among them," he wrote. "Why not? Has anybody listened to guitarist Francisco Mondragon's CDs with Jaco Pastorius, with Archie Shepp? Does somebody remember Mario Patron, Mexican pianist, and his group — George Joyner on bass and Ed Shaughnessy on drums—at the great 1956 edition of the Newport Jazz Festival? What happens with Mexican jazz upstairs?"

More promising developments—sort of—exist today, Derbez wrote in an article appearing about the same time as his lecture.

"The last ten years have seen an explosion of Mexican music groups and soloists," he wrote, but it "is inversely proportional to the spaces and places radio exclusively devoted to jazz."

The festival scene is reasonably active, including the EuroJazz Festival and the Mexico City Jazz Festival each spring in the country's largest city, and the Acapulco Jazz Festival in November. A few other events similar to the Riviera Maya Festival take place in resort towns or places like Baja California, although some have disappeared recently. The Cabo Jazz Escape in San Miguel canceled its December 2006 event due to a lack of sponsor funding and the Rosarito International Jazz Festival in Baja was put on hold in October due to large- scale wildfires in neighboring San Diego (oddly, a laudatory PR-worthy review of it was posted online at a travel site, although details were scarce beyond good-time-was-had-by-all prose).

Mexico's economy is decidedly unbalanced between the haves and have-nots, but organizers of the festival in Playa del Carmen are optimistic for reasons beyond the dollars brought in by the booming tourism industry.

The influx of visitors also means a boost in the working population, although much of that is also temporary or constantly changing, said Ines De Valicourt, the festival's co-producer. As a result, most bands are only a few years old and don't have the decades-long cohesion of a group like Tower Of Power, but they bring strong modern influences from the outside world with them.

"The bands take some influence from the bands of the States and they put it together with the music the young people only listen to now—the rock, the electronic," she said.

Mar Cigumala, manager of the local band Aguamala that opened the festival, said the mix of working immigrants from Central and South America, longtime residents and tourists from countries worldwide has resulted in a greater acceptance of musical diversity.

"They open their arms to anything," she said. "There's so many cultures here."

Braking Barriers

Open arms or not, this is a land of speed bumps.

Vehicles frequently operate more at barely more than walking pace on side streets and lodge roads, stopping every 20 yards or so to climb barriers that would challenge a Hummer. They also appear regularly on thoroughfares, making cruise control an ill-advised option.

"You'd be going along and those rental cars had no shocks left," said Mary Donovan, a Seattle resident making her second trip to the area."We commented on it all the time. We were like 'Slow down! Show down!'"

Donovan, traveling with her husband, Steve Seward, and friends from Poulsbo, Wash., said they thought about going to jazz festival on a couple of nights, but didn't have the energy to tackle the journey from their hotel after exploring the area during the day.

Then there's the metaphorical bumps: long walks or shuttle waits to get from your room to the facilities at those expansive resorts; struggles to get internet access; paying $4 a minute for phone calls to the U.S. using a cumbersome system that cuts you off every 20 minutes and resulted in my credit cards being put on security hold because of the repeated high charges.

This, of course, is the atmosphere most visitors seek. People who can't vacation without their Blackberry, laptop computer and widespread wifi will feel like they're in the jungle in more ways than one. They share an odd kinship their globetrotting opposites, the independent travelers who disdain and studiously avoid the all-controlling Disneyesque enterprises devouring the travelers' freedom to experience legitimate culture. Many in our group, including the organizers, wanted to make at least one stop at a street taco stand, but preset scheduling denied most the chance.

Those lavish and imported qualities also characterize the Riviera Maya Jazz Festival, for better and worse.

Nightly lineups consist of a Mexican opening act and a "big name" main concert, with nearly all shows fusion-oriented. Nothing in this year's lineup offered listeners any obvious sounds of Mexico or much approaching straight-ahead jazz.

"We're starting people with (fusion) so they're not afraid to get into that kind of music," said Fernando Toussaint, a drummer who has played in all of the festivals and serves as its director.

All of the headline performers said they planned to play regular shows without adoptions or tributes, arguing that's actually the best cultural contribution. Miller said he learned an important lesson in Brazil when his group assumed they needed to add a samba to the set, since they're part of every local band's playlist.

"But in Brazil everybody already plays a samba, so why should I play what they already know?" he said. "It's almost an insult. I think the important thing is to play what you bring."

Benson, the most anticipated visitor among locals I talked to, said "we're going to play all the hits" to please the crowd.

"I'm not to prove anything, (or) to make this day different than all other days," he said.

Derbez, in his historical narratives, derides a longstanding assumption that "Mexican jazz to be Mexican must syncopate songs like 'La Cucaracha,' 'Besame Mucho,' 'La Rielera,' 'El Jarabe Loco,' (and) 'La Bamba,' and must turn 'Take Five' into a jarabe or a huapango, 'All Blues' a bolero and 'When The Saints Go Marching In' a valona, a son, a corrido or something that can be played by norteno conjuntos and mariachis."

Such concepts don't apply to Toussaint, a self-taught musician who's spent most of his life listening to landmark old-school and fusion players.

"My grandpa used to listen to Miles Davis and all the big names in jazz," he said. "It was in the background all the time."

Toussaint and his brothers, Eugenio and Enrique, formed Sacbe, the first jazz group to create its own label in Mexico and among the first to use synthesizers (a four-disc set of more than 20 years' work can be heard and is available for as little as $6 at Amazon.com).

"The biggest influence we had was Weather Report," he said. "I also like Frank Zappa."

He spends eight months a year organizing the festival mostly by himself, a job he's had since some locals with an interest in music and tourism approached him with the concept.

"It all started as a dream," he said. "It was like four or five people who thought about it...They knew I was a drummer, they knew I was a musician, so they thought I was ideal."

The beach setting presents logistical problems—the stage wasn't sheltered the first few years, among other things—but Toussaint said he prefers it to a performing arts facility.

"The production is complicated because of the sand and the humidity," he said. "But the scenery is so beautiful I want to keep it there."

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.

"That pianist really anchored them well," said Bill Wahl, a Carlsbad, Calif., resident who is editor and publisher of Jazz And Blues Report. He also said the size and skill of the vocal guests allowed an intriguing variety of lyrical and tonal flourishes.

Miller's show, already more than an hour late, was delayed an additional 20 minutes by unspecified production problems. It was something less than my most anticipated moment of the festival, having heard him once or more a day for nearly two weeks during a jazz cruise a few months earlier (often playing a lot of the same material from the album Free, just released at the time in Europe). But he surpassed expectations by expanding the playlist through the range of his career. Also, while it was very much a "working gig" without special material, the energy and soloing most of the night were a step above another day at the office.

From the start Miller allowed adequate solo time for all. While his thudding slap tones were plenty familiar, he worked his opening statement through a series of funk progressions without his typical repetitive licks until the end. He generally avoided embellish-on-a-groove solos for much of the set, making distinct style changes between and during songs.

He earned the first distinct cheer from the audience for the first of two solos on an extended arrangement of the meditative "Jean-Pierre," gradually deconstructing a series of phrases with increasingly off-color embellishments, but more to the degree of keeping listeners alert than striving for the edge of musical possibilities He retreated into vamps at the end, but kept them from getting repetitive through tonal variations and some percussion-like string hits in bursts. After trumpeter Patches Stewart took a turn emulating the long, slow notes of Miles' late career, Miller entered with a second solo heavy on timbre changes, going from a wah-wah to octave jumps and other pitches. He kept up the theme in a series of exchanges with keyboardist Bobby Sparks, with Miller's duck quacks being answered with UFO hums and wobbly flutters.

He dominated "Amadala" with long, low anchor tones providing a foundation for bursts from the upper frets. His bass clarinet work is usually commendable and proved popular among the crowd when he joined Stewart, saxophonist Keith Anderson and harmonica player Gregoire Maret in a jam circle during "When I Fall In Love." Lesser moments were his OK, not great soft and high-pitch vocals on "Boomerang" and lackluster instrumental arrangement of Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground."

The set ended promisingly with a funked up "Come Together" featuring a lively round of exchanging shots where players picked up each others' themes effectively while straying far from the lyrical theme. But the encore was a drowsy "Tutu" with a lot of repeat riffs from Miller, although Stewart offered a solo with far more range and fewer effects than Miles' typical effort. Maybe it was just the hour—the concert ended at 11:45 p.m., nearly two hours past the scheduled conclusion.

Differing Points Of View

A problem traveling with PR people: Everybody loves all the shows.

Generally when there's a disagreement—usually my panning of a concert somebody else raves about—I tend to assume I'm the idiot in the room, since I hardly consider myself fully "educated" in all things jazz. But that gets harder, especially on the self-esteem, during a junket like this where either 1) the person I'm talking to has some kind of financial interest in a successful gig or 2) they're journalists focusing more on travel than music, so the jazz festival is merely some spice in the overall experience.

So when I say the opening concert on Day 2 by Los Dorados fell short of expectations it's worth noting it was a favorite of some fellow travelers and the biases above may or may not have been a factor. The Mexico City quartet, named after the legendary Mexican Revolution guerilla troops of Gen. Francisco Villa, promote themselves as playing an experimental blend of chamber, electronic, tango and Mexican music. Among the many listed influences are Radiohead, Charles Mingus, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Stravinsky and Debussy (considering the latter two are among my favorite and least favorite classical composers, respectively, cross- breeding them was an interesting concept).

"They create what can be described as the Dorado sound in reference to their search for an alternative kind of interpretation," a band biography notes. "Yet they do not have any ambition to create a new style or type of music. They rather try to constantly open up to a new exploration of sound."

Despite the dubious bit about ambition, it seemed Los Drados had potential to stand out in a mostly mainstream commercial lineup. What I heard were occasionally interesting compositions too often dragged down by muddy arrangements and players lacking honed communication skills among themselves.

Arrangements shifted from dense cinematographic buildups to sparse syncopated rock to wordless group chants, but "simple" keeps popping up in my notes. It's a relative word, with the complexity of Los Dorados' work consistently second-rate to more acclaimed neo-experimental groups I've encountered (notably in Scandinavia). This, however, is where I need to mention no less an authority than Pal Andre Strand Larsen, a Norwegian now living in Playa del Carmen with Itzel Mejia, one of our PR hosts, was impressed by the group's concepts and sound textures. While I was hearing average musicians talking somewhat vaguely past each other without many individual statements of note, he said the varying voices boosted the depth of dialogue and doesn't looking for blow-away soloing in this type of music.

"I like them because they remind me of King Crimson," he said. "When I listen to music it's nice if there's good individual musicians, but not what makes it interesting."

Nuanced analysis was hardly necessary during Tower Of Power's headliner concert. Lead vocalists Emilio Castillo and Larry Braggs worked the crowd the start with quips ("Let's see how many laws we can break tonight!"), hand clapping and verbiage between songs. Dennis Chambers, a temporary fill-in in on drums playing his TOP debut, greeted Castillo's "we're going to change the pace" bit by engaging in two false starts at hyper- and middling speeds before taking up a slow R&B groove, typifying the wink-wink guffaws intermittent throughout the night.

The set featured plenty of crowd-pleasing group jamming and vamping during long-established, horn-heavy favorites like "Diggin' On James Brown," although they dedicated their encore, "You're Still A Young Man," to Touissaint in recognition of his efforts to bring the band to the festival. Chambers paced the band just fine without distinguishing or discrediting himself, and did a nice job carrying his weight through some complexly timed horn hits and stops. There weren't a lot of people on their feet dancing until the Brown tribute right before the encore, but plenty of those seated were grooving and nodding, including an elderly woman next to me in a wheelchair.

Once again the concert wrapped up late around midnight, but more of a much larger crowd than Thursday stayed until the end and was more energized after (many TGIFers, including some in our group, headed to nightclubs to continue partying into the wee hours). Toussaint, enthusiastic about a crowd estimated at 12,000, said an even bigger turnout was possible the final night when Benson—much heralded by locals—took the stage.

"They're talking about 15,000," he said.

Can't (Completely) Dampen The Spirit

The final morning of the festival brought rain.

Just a few sprinkles, but clouds on the horizon were ominously black and the wind less than friendly. I've done outdoor festivals in miserable weather, but seldom for long and somehow this didn't seem like a place where hardcore enthusiasts would brave the elements.

The storm never took hold, aside from strong gusts blowing inward from the ocean all evening, but the crowd did seem smaller than Friday's. And whether it was the weather or some other factor, shows started and ended on time.

Sacbe, with all their stature, was a mixed bag, playing cohesively and racking some commendable solos, notably by keyboardist Eugenio Toussaint. But it didn't exceed what countless bands play in clubs everywhere and I never latched onto a signature sound. After an opening rock/fusion piece they settled down into a lighter collection of often Latin-accented ballads, with Eugenio Toussaint's soft-toned timbres making me think this was what a Bob James concert sounded like during the 1970s (notebook jottings include "resembles the 'Taxi' theme" or "sounds a lot like 'Rousseau'").

The keyboardist showed a versatile soloing range, keeping both hands close for minutes-long sessions of question-and-answer phrases, dashing through higher octaves note-by-note, crunching out pillowy extended chords whose edges were hard to find in those James-lke tones. Bassist Enrique Toussaint mixed conventional and slap tones all night, executing a fairly challenging set of rolling note progressions at one point, but generally was a neutral presence by keeping within the harmonic framework of the compositions. Fernando Toussaint turned in a better effort on drums, getting a number of exchanges going with his brother on keyboards that, if not capturing 20 years of sibling intimacy, proved them well able to pick up on each others' thoughts.

All in all, it was a hell of a lot better than Benson.

There's no question he can play the guitar and the masses who love his singing doubtless include many with good taste. But his festival-ending set was flat, workman-like, poorly mixed and, according to my notes, "about as exciting as a 30-year-old lounge act."

Contrary opinions were plentiful and I might have quoted some if they weren't an overall enthusiastic crowd reaction and lengthy conversation with someone who turned out to be a promoter. The set list should allow readers to make up their own minds, since none of the arrangements strayed from the familiar, with hits like "Kisses In The Moonlight," "Turn Your Love Around," "Let Me Love You One More Time" and the encore "Broadway" a good sampling. A few mid-set instrumental numbers didn't find Benson doing any real reaching with his hollow-body, but they were a good deal more tolerable than the made-for-radio stuff, especially since his vocals were struggling to cut through the instrumentation.

Benson didn't communicate with the crowd beyond a few how-are-yous at the beginning of songs, finally introducing the band at the encore. He might have done better not to mention how various members have played with the likes of Marsalis, The Crusaders and Sanborn, since the band made no effort to do anything that might distract from Benson at center stage (from the notes: "all those names the band plays with and yet so dull").

Clearly, like the all-inclusive resort, the concert was not an ideal match for me.

So it was a mostly crummy vacation. But since that's largely due to my warped ideals it's hardly a basis for an objective critique of the festival and how successfully it's establishing a jazz presence in Playa del Carmen. It seems to be doing a good job pleasing the crowds, nearly all of whom take it in as a secondary or novel diversion, and a fair one at whetting the appetite for a more involved scene. The lack of any mainstream or even more daring fusion bands speaks volumes about not feeling secure enough to book anything other than surefire moneymakers. The range of work tackled by the in-country musicians (Eugino Toussaint performed an orchestra piece for the first time, his "Concerto for Improvisational Piano," shortly after the festival) suggests they're plenty able to expand their horizons beyond their radio-friendly peers north of the border.

It's a portrait similar to many areas where jazz is in its first few years of taking root, but a surprisingly immature state given the population and popularity of the area. Even if it's never likely to equal Cancun as a tourist destination, there's potential to be a significant jazz hub in a country with relatively few. My inner critic says the secret may be offering something different than the larger, more established events in places like Mexico City, which means taking some risks.

Would I do another junket? A better question might be would I be invited, since this overly verbose rant is obviously not the unreserved accolade hosts are used to seeing in publications like Travel And Leisure. I'd probably let a similar experience go to someone better able to appreciate the larger vacation theme. But if the Rivera Maya festival really does expand to a week and takes advantage of the breathing room to diversify (tributes to the country's historic jazz figures would be a personal lure) I might even cash in my own frequent flier miles to go.


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