September 4-8, 2013
"Audiences in Latin America are totally different than in Europe," Italian clarinetist Gabriele Mirabassi told me while we shared a bus ride from the international airport n Barranquilla, Colombia to our hotel. "Here, if you connect with them, people become passionate and emotionally expressive. In Europe, someone will come up after a concert and say something like, 'Oh, that was a very intellectual project you presented tonight.' They try to be cool. Here, it's a real joy to perform for audiences that appreciate what you do on a purely visceral level."
Mirabassi, who has lived in Brazil and has performed extensively in the region, was on a five city tour of Colombia. At the Barranquijazz Festival, now in its 17th year, the clarinetist's animated stage presence and his emphasis on Brazilian choro-style works made a strong impression on the annual event's opening night and validated his assessment of Latin American jazz fans.
Thanks to the ongoing efforts of a trio of local jazz aficionados, the festival has grown into one of the finest events of its kind in the greater Caribbean basin. Samuel Minski, a print shop owner and publisher of books of cultural and historic themes, is joined by co-directors Antonio Caballero, a local radio host well known for his obsession for jazz and Latin music, and Mingo de la Cruz, a veteran Avianca Airlines pilot. For close to two decades, they've managed to keep the festival functioning at a high level while working to create a sustainable jazz culture in this hot and humid port metropolis of some two million souls.
Considering that the city is one of the largest ports on the Atlantic Coast between New York City and Recife, Brazil, it's somewhat amazing that Barranquilla isn't better known. Its annual carnival is the largest outside of Brazil and earned the city the title of "The American Capital of Culture" for 2013. It was also once the stomping ground of Colombia's famed novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez and other notable poets, painters and intellectuals. In 1921, it also became the first city in Colombia to host a live performance by a visiting jazz group. The ties with traditional Latin music are also strong, due to the role of trade in connecting Barranquilla with such other Caribbean ports as Havana, Santo Domingo and San Juan.
What makes Barranquijazz so compelling is its long-perfected formula for programming. Over five nights of concerts presented in a number of the city's performance spaces,, including an open air finale presented in one of the city's main plazas, audiences have the opportunity to discover and enjoy styles of jazz and jazz- related genres that reflect a true world view of the music. An iconic figure or two from the ranks of U.S. legends are usually present, as are artists representing Afro-Cuban Latin jazz and salsa and Brazilian idioms. Add a European group, several national acts, and one or more notable instrumentalists who are featured through the festival as guest soloists with various groups, and you have a finely-tuned recipe for success. It's fair to say that in its 17 years of existence, Barranquijazz has presented a veritable who's who of North American jazz, Brazilian music and Latin jazz.
This year, Steve Kuhn and Freddy Cole, two dissimilar but complementary artists from the U.S., were the flag-carriers for the mainstream jazz tradition. Pianist and composer Kuhn and his trio proved to be a revelation to those who associate him with a cerebral, avant-garde approach to his performances. His range of source material, all rendered in his wholly individual style, was as curious as it was successful. He tapped the Henry Mancini songbook for the lovely but seldom performed "Slow Hot Wind," incorporating a fragment of Miles Davis' version of "Summertime" and an oblique reference to the Latin standard "Besame Mucho" into his arrangement. He also served up a refreshingly different take of the Kenny Dorham standard "Blue Bossa" and a rhythmically playful version of frequent collaborator Steve Swallow's "Ladies in Mercedes."