27th Havana International Jazz Festival: Havana, Cuba, December 15-18, 2011

27th Havana International Jazz Festival: Havana, Cuba, December 15-18, 2011
Louis Heckheimer By

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27th Havana International Jazz Festival
Havana International Jazz Festival Plaza
Havana, Cuba
December 15-18, 2011
[Note: This is the second of a series of articles reporting on concerts and other activities that took place, as well as profiles of Cuban musicians who took part.]
The Havana International Jazz Festival originated in 1979 when Cuban trumpet player Bobby Carcasses and others held a jazz festival at the Casa de la Cultura de Plaza in the Vedado neighborhood of Havana. Although it has hosted international jazz stars such as Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Haden and Steve Coleman, the festival has served as a showcase to present the richness and variety of Cuban jazz talent. This year the festival took place at several locations around Havana, but the main stage was the Teatro Mella, a major center for the performing arts. The theme of this year's festival was the relationship between jazz and classical music, and was explored through the participation of musicians who are associated with the classical world, using classical music as a source of improvisation and instruments more often associated with the classical world than jazz. This theme was explored intermittently throughout the festival but was highlighted at the final closing gala at the Teatro Mella, which featured the festival big band led by Joaquin Betancourt with pianist Frank Fernandez in a performance of George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," as well as jazz arrangements of other pieces from the classical repertoire. This year's special guests were Cuban-American pianists Arturo O'Farrill and Gonzalo Rubalcaba.
If one were to believe Cuban jazz is the same as Latin jazz, one would be ignoring the range of styles which interest Cuban musicians and that the two terms, at most, partially intersect. Cuban musicians are fully aware of non-Latin styles of jazz and this broadness was on display at the festival; in fact, most of the performances this year did not have Latin percussion on the stage.

The first concert on the evening of the 15th started with the choral group Entre Voces led by Digna Guerra. Guerra, who is the leading exponent of choral music in Cuba, serves as director of the National Chorus of Cuba and is a professor at the Superior Institute of Art, as well as director of her own twenty member chorale, Entre Voces. Her group's repertoire includes a mixture of classical and Cuban music as well as jazz. Their set included "Waltz for Debbie," "A Nightingale Sang in Berkley Square" and "I Got Rhythm." The chorus sang the songs straight and sonorously but they did have a good sense of swing that you don't usually associate with chorale music, especially with "I Got Rhythm."

William Roblejo is a young violinist who is currently active in many classical, jazz, Cuban and pop musical projects, and is also professor of violin at the Amadeo Roldan Conservatory. At the festival he performed with his trio the first night and with the String Quartet of the Roldan Conservatory the following evening. His influences include the American violinist Mark O'Connor, Jean-Luc Ponty and Didier Lockwood. The two numbers he played with the trio were an unnamed original based on a repeated fiddle pattern, followed by the standard "Beautiful Love," with himself on violin, Julio Cesar Gonzalez on bass and Roberto Gomez on steel string guitar, sounding similar to the Ponty, Al Di Meola, Stanley Clarke Rites of Strings Trio and the String Trio of New York. He combined virtuoso technique with a country/jazz violin approach rather than with a bebop style.

Cuban-American pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba performed "Derivado #2" from his recent solo CD Fe Faith (5Passion, 2011), which is a collection of short piano works. Known for technical flash early in his career, in recent times he has taken the opposite tack and showed thoughtfulness through the use of slowness and restraint, using the twelve-tone row and tone clusters to build his composition and improvisation.

Arturo O'Farrill who appeared with his big band last year, performed in a trio with Carlo Derosa on bass and Vince Cherico on drums. His group played four numbers: Ernesto Lecuona's "Siboney," "Crazy Chicken" and "One Adam 12 Mambo" from O'Farrill's Risa Negra (Zoho, 2009), plus Duke Ellington's "Warm Valley." "Siboney" began with a beautiful solo piano introduction, while the frenetic "Crazy Chicken" reflected its title. "Warm Valley'' was played somewhat percussively with Monkish runs on his left hand, and "One Adam 12 Mambo" ended the concert with DeRosa taking the first solo, cooling things down while O'Farrill ramped up the energy in his solo, with Cherico propelling it all along.

The second night of the festival the concert at the Teatro Mella featured five groups, Ernan Lopez-Nussa's Proyectos Sacreligios (Cuba), The Berklee Jazz Faculty Quartet (USA), Cuarteto De Cuerdas Del Conservatorio Roldan (Cuba), Roberto Fonseca y Temperamento (Cuba) and the Bobby Carcasses ensemble (Cuba).

The evening started with the music of Ernan Lopez-Nussa. Lopez-Nussa, a member of a large musical family in a household where he was exposed to both classical music and jazz, started studying classical piano at the age of six and jazz at the age of eleven. His current group, "Proyectos Sacrilegios," which features bassist Gaston Joya and drummer Enrique Platas, uses the classical repertoire as a source of jazz improvisation.

Lopez-Nussa's set started with "Bocetto #1" by contemporary Cuban composer Leo Brouwer, a composition which clearly showed the influence of Chick Corea. Selections from Domenico Scarlatti's "Sonata in B minor" and "Sonata in D Minor" were featured as the second and fourth numbers, and Ernesto Lecuona's "A La Antigua" came between them. The beginning of each piece was played as originally written, and then segued so subtly into the improvised sections that it took a few moments to notice the change. The pianist didn't resort to clichés such as blue notes and witticisms, but showed through his development a clear relation between jazz and Cuban concepts with the original composition. The influences of Red Garland and Wynton Kelly were evident. Joya kept a deft rhythmic bass pattern going and soloed lyrically while Pla accompanied subtly with the brushes. Frederic Chopin's "Valse in F" with guest vocalists, including a flamenco singer, closed the set and transformed the languorous original into a lively samba.

The Berklee Jazz Faculty Quartet consisting of Neil Leonard on alto sax, JoAnne Brackeen piano, John Lockwood bass and Yoron Israel on drums, presented two numbers from Neil Leonard's recent CD Marcel's Window (GASP, 2011), "Alice in the Atrium" and the title number, "Marcel's Window." The songs, which are reflective of specific sites in Philadelphia, Leonard's home town, were angular in structure and clearly executed. Joanne Brackeen played masterfully, as always.

The Cuarteto de Cuerdas del Conservatorio Amdeo Roldan performed two unannounced pieces much in the style of the Turtle Island String Quartet. The ensemble playing was tight and rhythmically crisp, with violinist William Roblejo taking most of the solo responsibilities.

Pianist Roberto Fonseca and his group Temperamento have certainly achieved a reputation of being one of the most exciting groups in Cuban jazz today. Featuring saxophonist Javier Zalba, drummer Ramses Rodriguez and bassist Omar Gonzalez, the music ranged from furiously percussive and complex to quiet and mysterious. They performed three selections, beginning with "Fragmento de Misa" and "Cuando Uno Crece," a danzon from the recent album Akokan (Justin Time Records, 2010). Fonseca weaved a haunting percussive thread with his right hand, building up in intensity to the ensemble section which featured Zalba embroidering an arabesque phrygian modal improvisation on clarinet. The third number was another slow, mysterious piece in which Fonseca's haunting vocoder-modulated singing was the centerpiece. The last number was a hard-edged funk outing with Fonseca riffing on the organ and Rodriguez beating a funky but polyrhythmic pattern, while Zalba and other guest horn players soloed.

Bobby Carcasses, multi-instrumentalist, singer, dancer, producer, educator—one could go on with this list—is considered to be one of the authorities on Cuban jazz. His set featured a large ensemble which included singing, dancing and jazz solos, all in one big show. Some purists might sneer at this style of showmanship but the audience loved it. His show-stopper was a long, extended work called "Tata Guines Es Su Tambor." Carcasses began with a scatted invocation of the spirit of the late master percussionist Tata Guines, followed by a drum solo and an extended piano solo by Tito Cambio, a flute solo by Evelyn Suarez, and a flugelhorn solo by Carcasses. A dancer named Atocha hobbled onstage like an old man and ended his dance by doing back flips and Pancho Garay, a shakere player, juggled his instrument flamboyantly as he played it, All of this built up along with other soloists to a finale where everybody was playing and having one big party on the stage.

The third night was specifically a night of youthful piano talent presenting two Cuban pianists, Harold Lopez-Nussa and Aldo Lopez-Gavilan, and the Polish pianist Mateuz Kolakowski. Lopez-Nussa, the nephew of Ernan, started his set playing a medium-tempo Latin beat with his left hand and chiming figures with the right, building intensity by adding a trumpet solo before fading back somewhat in the fashion of Keith Jarrett. Kolakowski played a solo set that showed the influence of Cecil Taylor and McCoy Tyner. He took fragments from Chopin's "Funeral March" and rebuilt it as something very different, yet similar in intent, an effect filled with left-hand ostinatos and discordant right-hand runs and twelve tone figures. His own composition "Body" was more quiet and contemplative, yet still containing drama, and ended with an agitated interpretation of "Angel Eyes" that had a hint of "'Round Midnight" in it.

Aldo Lopez-Gavilan started his set playing a beautiful rendition of Debussy's "Reflets dans L'eau" from "Images" and Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumble Bee" before being joined by the rest of his quartet, consisting of bass, drums and clarinet for "Pan Con Timba," and finally by the Chamber Orchestra of Havana for his composition "Talking to the Universe." The effect was evocative of some of the work that McCoy Tyner has done with similar groups without being imitative.

The fourth evening and the closing concert at the Teatro Mella featured Joaquin Betancourt and his twenty-piece big band in an ambitious program of original Betancourt arrangements of selections from the classical repertoire. Betancourt is known as one of the most active arrangers in Cuba as well as being active as a violinist, conductor, producer, composer and professor of music. The finale was his arrangement of George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" with the notable Cuban pianist Frank Fernandez at the piano.

The program started with the third movement of "La Cathedral," a work by Paraguayan guitarist Agustin Barrios Mangoré. Originally written for solo guitar, this arrangement featured Hector Manuel Quintana on electric guitar. "La Bella Cubana," an habanera written by nineteenth-century Afro-Cuban composer José Silvestre White, was a vehicle for an extended tenor saxophone solo. Tenor Yury Hernandez was featured on two selections, an arrangement of Giacamo Puccini's "E Luceven le Stelle," performed in Spanish as "Adios La Vida," and Mexican composer Maria Grever's bolero "Jurame." The big band featured Ignacio Cervantes' contradanza "Los Tres Golpes" and flutist Evelyn Suarez was featured in the second movement of Jacques Ibert's "Concerto for Flute." As an introduction to the Gershwin piece, Fernandez played a beautiful interpretation of Charles Gounod's "Ave Maria." The Gershwin performance was masterful and played as written with the exception of a short blues improvisation by Fernandez in the middle.

Coming up next, a look at several jazz soloists and groups that can be found performing in Havana today.

Photo Credits
Page 1, Lead Photo: Foto Odalys Padilla
Page 1, Venue: Alex Paco

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