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Back Roads Beat

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

By Published: January 30, 2008
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."

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