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Back Roads Beat

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

By Published: January 30, 2008
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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