September 9-13, 2009
Who knows touristic Colombia? Precious few Americans and what a pity! Cartagena's Spanish fortress and charming old town make it a cruise circuit favorite and Bogota is its large, chilly Andean capital, but coastal metropolis Barranquilla falls below tour radar, except as an artsy launch-pad for world-class novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Barranquijazz, its torrid, savvy 13-year Latin Jazz Festival.
Each September producers Antonio Caballero and Samuel Minski roll out an impressive lineup, this edition favoring pianistsat least 12, from 10 countries, 8 of them leaders. From Osmany Paredes' blistering barrages to Ahmad Jamal's whistle-slick arrangements and Ed Simon's earnest poetic fantasias to Leonardo Donado's wry musing beats, elegant and erudite eighty-eights were on display.
Delightful revelations included Orlando 'Maraca' Valle's transcendent flutery, stop-dime arrangements of danzons and rumbas, floating airily over the precision pyrotechnics of percussion genii 'El Negro' Hernandez and Giovanni Hidalgo. The remarkable stylistic adroitness and irrepressible originality of Jamal was a refreshing rediscovery; the veteran pianist calibrated his quartet as finely and explosively as a Maserati. His superbly interknit arrangements spun "Estate" as a slow, drifting samba (with perking peaks and valleys from master drummer Kenny Washington and a percussionist) and (once again) reinvented his 1956 hit "Poinciana" with rumbling sforzando tutti every four bars over several choruses to build spine-tingling dramatic suspense.
The febrile, flexible trio of pianist Osmany Paredes, nimble electric bassist Oscar Stagnaro and multi-kulti drummer Mark Walker that played a lively set opening night returned on the morrow with tamborero Giovanni Hidalgo to provide a prickly cushion for redoubtable sessionistas, ebullient trombonist Papo Vasquez and Dave Valentin, who straw-bossed with elan and played bluesy bop on his flute with expressive fervor and winking swagger. The band cruised from Charlie Parker to "Obsession" in a blink and made it stick.
With good sight lines, crisp lighting and well-balanced sound for 1,000 keen listeners, the Amira de la Rosa Theater (named for the playwright and poet who wrote the city's anthem) proved a dashingly handsome and fine listening venue. The casually congenial gatherings of listeners and critics savored the socializing, sipping and critiquing afforded by 30-minute intermissions, whether in the Teatro's dramatic mahogany-ceilinged foyer or its fountain-sprayed, albeit sweltering, open courtyard.
A quietly poetic, dreamy and bemusedly intelligent set by Venezuelan-born pianist Edward Simon opened an evening at The Country Club's Jumbo Salon, bringing forth tender, thoughtful solos from tenor saxophonist Pablo Gil. Concentrating on traditional Venezuelan folksongs as their material, Simon and mates played two by Simon Diaz before launching into a final exhilarating 'thumb-piano' ostinato version of Dizzy Gillespie's "Woody'n You."
These gentle griots set a charming precedent for the elegant, saffron-swathed Omara Portuondo, Cuba's diva of bolero. The Festival's one scintillating exception to ignoring distaff musicians was her swooningly elegant performance, one rich in memory and history, filled with sweet love songs that evoked warm, misty responses from a clearly enthralled audience. She ran a wide emotional gamut, from hand-clapping "Guantanamera" to evoking local political fervor with "Se Barranquilla Me Voy" to a Chico Buarque soft-talking samba to low-down lullaby "Drume Negrita."
Showcasing two lively, thoughtful young Colombian bands may seem a no-brainer, but many festivals inexplicably keep its local talent under wraps. The Aldrete Jazz Band, led by extrovert trombonist Javier Villa, was supposed to lead off the first night, but ended it instead with stark fireworks: burly trombone (or wooden piccolo) over electric bass, drums and percussion. Leonardo Donado, a spidery, discerning pianist, led his trio in one of the daily free outdoor concerts held in a park adjacent to the Theater and well-attended by uniformed students and the general public. Here as indoors, attention was paid to judicious and precise amplification.
Other musical fronts covered over five days: guitarist Greg Diamond's Latin-tinged post-bop quartet; Duo Bozzolan (piano and slap-tongued reeds) from Italy pinned dry essays in European improvisation and a wild all-in, all-out dance jam by Havana Report (and guests) at Plaza de la Paz that started earlier than 3 pm and wailed far into the night.