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56th Jazzaldia Festival

Courtesy Jazzaldia Festival

Paul Combs BY

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This is what I call a real jazz festival.
—Kenny Barron
56th Jazzaldia Festival
Various venues
Donostia/San Sebastián, Spain
July 21-25, 2021

This was the 56th edition of the Jazzaldia Festival in Donostia/San Sebastián, the capital of Gipuzcoa province in the Pais Vasco region on the north coast of Spain. With a population of roughly 200,000, and popularity as a tourist location, it is able to host this, and other music festivals. While perhaps not as well-know in the US as the North Sea or Montreux festivals, Jazzaldia is, by its longevity and quality of presentation, one of the major European jazz festivals. Starting in 1966, with a two-day festival built around a competition for European amateur bands and American guitarist Mikey Baker's professional band, Jazzaldia has grown steadily to its present stature. By its 50th edition it presented 132 performances on 20 stages with a total attendance of 175,000. This year, despite the limitations imposed by COVID-19, the festival spanned five days with a total of 60 concerts (both ticketed and free) taking place in eight venues located throughout the city.

Over the years Jazzaldia has presented many notable jazz artists both European and American. In the early years, not surprisingly, the Americans were ones who were living in Europe, like Bill Coleman, Johnny Griffin, and Lucky Thompson. By 1984, the 19th edition featured none other than Miles Davis as one of the headliners. In the twentieth edition the headliners were Jack DeJohnette's Special Edition, the Keith Jarrett Trio, the Newport Jazz All Stars, the Count Basie Orchestra Directed by Thad Jones, the Sun Ra Intergalactic Arkestra, Ray Charles and Orchestra, as well as an all-star group of Spanish jazz musicians. By 1988, the 22nd edition, the festival had outgrown the rationale for a contest of amateur musicians, and presented a full program of professional groups representing the stylistic diversity of the art form.

Trinidad Plaza -the main stage

As Kenny Barron said at his press conference, "This is what I call a real jazz festival, the main act is not smooth jazz or [pop]." Indeed, while there have been clearly non-jazz acts included, such as Gloria Gaynor in 2016, or The Pretenders in 2017, these have been presented on special stages, and the main stage, Plaza del la Trinidad -or Trinitate Plaza in Basque -is reserved for jazz performers, or in some cases those from other genres in collaboration with jazz performers. This year's festival continued that tradition.

The Plaza de la Trinidad stage was host to a series of excellent two-act concerts, spanning a wide range of approaches to jazz performance. The first was Dave Douglas in collaboration with the veteran Italian jazz pianist Franco D'Andrea, supported by the Italian bassist Frederica Michisanti and American drummer Dan Weiss. D'Andrea and Douglas have a long-standing friendship, and a compatible approach to composition. The younger Michisanti and Weiss were certainly up to the task, bringing three generations of creative musicians together on the stage. D'Andrea had also given a solo recital that morning next door to the plaza at the San Telmo Museum.

The second set performers were Cecile McLorin Salvant—who first appeared here in 2018—and Sullivan Fortner—two outstanding performers. They have been working together for a while now, and with their combined talents are able to explore Cécile's wide repertoire fluidly. As a special treat for this audience, they saved three songs in Spanish for last, to the delight of their Pais Vasco audience. The duo had also given a special concert on Sunday, July 18 ahead of the Festival proper at Chillida Leku, an outdoor venue in the southern suburbs of Donostia/San Sebastián,.

The second night saw multi-Grammy Award winner Gonzalo Rubalcaba, one of the leading figures of Afro-Cuban jazz, and Aymée Nuviola, singer, composer and actress. It was a performance similar to that of McLorin Salvant and Fortner the previous night, in that it paired a dynamic singer with a pianist who is a master of the orchestral potential of the instrument. Aymée and Gonzalo, met as children in their home city of Havana. Their mothers were friends and they shared the same piano teacher. In time, their lives and careers took separate paths to success. Now, 20 years later they reconnected to pay a musical tribute to their roots, their mothers, and the musical influence of Havana with a repertoire of Cuban classics, as well as their own compositions.

They were followed by the great Cuban pianist Chucho Valdes, accompanied by Reinier 'Negrón' Elizarde, bass, Georvis Pico, drum kit, and Pedro Pablo Rodríguez, percussion. Chucho Valdés is one of the most influential figures of modern Afro-Cuban jazz, with an extensive career of more than 60 years that includes multiple Grammys, among many other awards. He is the son of the equally revered pianist Bebo Valdes, who received the Donostiako Jazzaldia Award in 2003. At this concert Chucho was presented with this same award. It came as a surprise to him, and he was deeply moved, finishing the concert with even more fire than at the beginning of his performance.

For night three, the 9:00 concert at Trinitate Plaza paired the trio of pianist Marco Mezquida, cellist Martín Meléndez and percussionist Aleix Tobias with the All Star Quartet quartet of Kenny Barron, including vibraphonist Steve Nelson, bassist Peter Washington, and drummer, Jonathan Blake. Mezquida draws his inspiration from a variety of sources, including classical composers like Liszt, Albéniz, and Ravel, jazz musicians like Keith Jarrett, and Spanish folk music. The concert was a study in contrasts, the younger musicians with a fresh take on the piano trio, and a somewhat flamboyant presentation, the veterans with an inspired but business-like presentation. The audience clearly enjoyed and embraced both, many having become fans at both leaders' previous appearances.

The fourth Trinitate Plaza concert presented a pair of multicultural artists with roots in the Middle East: Franco-Syrian Naïssam Jalal, and Noa (Achinoam Nini), born in Isreal but raised in the U.S. While neither addressed their opinions and concerns directly with their performance, sharing the stage spoke clearly of their common advocacy for peace in the troubled region. Celebrating its 10th anniversary, Naïssam Jalal & Rhythms Of Resistance played music from their 2021 release Un Autre Monde (Les Couleurs du Son). Naïssam Jalal plays flute, the folkloric flute ney ,and sings, accompanied Mehdi Chaïb tenor & soprano sax, Karsten Hochapfel, guitar & cello, Damien Varaillon, bass, and Arnaud Dolmen, drums. In the second half of the concert Noa, vocals & percussion, and and her accompanist for the last 30 years Gilset Mora Amador, guitar & vocals, were accompanied on some of the numbers by the esteemed Basque pianist Iñaki Salvador. Noa and Dor were ostensibly celebrating the 2021 release of a recording of American Songbook songs, Afterallogy (Naive), but most of the concert explored Noa & Dor's extensive repertoire, as well as collaborations they have recorded with Salvador.

The final concert at Trintate Plaza started at 8:00 with the Brad Mehldau Trio -Mehldau and long-time band mates Larry Grenadier and Jeff Ballard -and concluded with the Bill Frisell Trio. The guitarist was accompanied by bassist Thomas Morgan, and drummer Rudy Royston, who have worked with him frequently over the years. The program presented two artists with a similar esthetic: an introspective approach, and a love of temporal space. These artists eschew a showy presentation, and it is interesting to note again that the audience here appreciates both the more theatrical performers like Marco Mezquida and Noa, and the more business-like performers like Kenny Barron and Bill Frisell, with equal appreciation and enthusiasm.

Jazz in Spain

One of the outstanding features of the Jazzaldia Festival is the commitment to Spanish jazz musicians, and the unique influence their culture has on the sound of their music. There is also a commitment to the music of Basque musicians specifically. While this has not always been evident in the programs, the implication was there from the beginning in the contest years of the festival's early history. From 1980 through 1987, even as the festival was increasingly able to attract major performers from the U.S., there was a specifically Basque competition. From the mid-'80s the big acts were predominantly touring Americans and some Europeans, however local regional musicians were appearing on the smaller stages. In the next decade more Spanish musicians would perform on the big stages, probably as a result of the evolution of these as major artists. By 2012 Basque musicians were being promoted vigorously.

The COVID-19 pandemic caused the Festival to focus even more on "local" performers, since there were no touring acts to book. After more than fifty years, there was no appetite for just canceling Jazzaldia for 2020. The resulting smaller event was still a success, and celebrated the high quality of jazz musicians from areas close to home. At the time the 2021 festival was being organized, it still was not known if any American musicians would even be allowed to tour, or feel safe in doing so. The initial plans were for a line-up similar to that of 2020. In the end the four acts on the Trinite stage, along with Dave Douglas apparently traveling solo, and the two Cuban maestros were able to come. Still, the balance of performers were "home grown," making this a wonderful opportunity for foreign attendees to hear some musicians that perhaps were unknown to them.

In addition to their own bookings Jazzaldia has, on various occasions, hosted mini-festivals organized by other organizations, mostly from within Spain. This year the beautiful Victoria Eugenia Theater was the venue for both. The first concert was devoted to La Locomotora Negra, a 17-piece big band from Catalonia celebrating its 50th anniversary, and its third time performing here at the festival, which made this a very special concert. Accordingly, four of the founding members of the band gave a press conference, and the band was given the Donostiako Award—the second one this year and a special honor. Starting as a quintet inspired by early swing artists like Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Louis Armstrong, they grew to a full big band —seven brass, five reeds, and four rhythm instruments. During the fifty years of its existence it have performed extensively, and released 19 albums. This was to be its last visit to Jazzaldia, suggesting it would disband soon after, and definitely going out on a high note.

The remaining concerts at Victoria Eugenia comprised the festival-within-the-festival titled JazzEñe, organized under the auspices of SGAE, the Spanish equivalent of ASCAP. These four concerts presented two groups each. On Jul 22, day two of Jazzaldia, these were the Ariel Bringuez Quintet and the Caminero Quintet.

Tenor saxophonist Ariel Brínguez is from Cuba, and has taken up residency in Europe, performing with many artists well-known in Spain and Europe in general. In his part of the concert he played music from his 2016 recording, Nostalgia Cubana (Cezanne Records), interpretations of Afro-Cuban dance rhythms like bolero and danzón, and a tribute to the era of the '50s, and artists like Bola de Nieve, José Antonio Méndez, Eliseo Grenet. In addition to Brínguez, the band included Pablo Gutierrez, piano, Javier Sanchez, guitar, Reinier 'Negrón' Elizarde 'El Negrón,' bass, and Georvis Pico, drums. Bassist and composer Pablo Martin Caminero's band included Bringuez; Carlos Martin, trombone, Moisés Sánchez, piano, and Michael Olivera, drums. In writing for this band, Caminero draws on traditional flamenco forms and rhythms such as granaína, siguiriya, bulería or soleá.

The second day of JazzEñe presented two Spanish pianists, Daniel Garcia and Chano Dominguez. Rising star Daniel Garcia, a student of JoAnne Brackeen and Danilo Pérez, among others, played in a trio with bassist Reinier Elizarde 'El Negrón,' who played with Brínguez, and drummer Michael Olivera, who played with Martin Caminero the day before. His music draws on Hispanic rhythms like flamenco and tango, and includes spare and tasteful use of electronics. The internationally acclaimed pianist Chano Dominguez, a recipient of last year's Donostiako award, is known for drawing on his roots in flamenco, as well as his abilities as a straight-ahead jazz pianist. Active for many years in both Europe and the U.S., he has collaborated with many American artists, Wynton Marsalis, Jack DeJohnette, Herbie Hancock, Jerry Gonzalez, and Joe Lovano, among them. His popularity here made this the only sold-out concert in the JazzEñe series. He was joined by bassist Horacio Fumero and drummer David Xirgu.

The third JazzEñe concert at the Victoria Eugenia Theater featured the quintet Smack Dab and the trio Sumrrá. The five Catalonian musicians of Smack Dab—drummer Joan Casares, Lluc Casares, sax, Oriol Vallès, trumpet, Jöel González, piano, and Pau Sala, bass—have been together for six years, and have performed and/or recorded with several veteran musicians including Jesse Davis and Vincent Herring. In contrast to the straight-ahead hard-bop approach of Smack Dab, Sumrrá have established an avant-guarde and humorous style during their 21 years together. Pianist Manuel Gutierrez, bassist Xacobe Xurxo Martínez, and percussionist Luis Alberto Rodríguez Legido, made music full of zany, but musically sound surprises.

The final day of JazzEñe featured the Alma Carets Quintet and Manolo y Curra. Alma Carets plays trumpet, but her focus is on singing and arranging the music. Her compositions and arrangements are very much based in the music of Spain, especially her home region of Catalonia. Her approach is somewhat similar to that of Naïssam Jalal, an approach to the music that may be evolving among these emerging women artists. Carets was supported by Lucas Martinez, tenor sax, Roger Santacana i Hervada, piano; Giuseppe Campisi, bass, and Josep Cordobés, drums. Manolo y Curra -pianist Javier Galiana, and singer/percussionist María Isabel Ávila, aka "La Mónica," draw on their folkloric roots, as did the first group. Humor and theater are at the heart of much of their art, but they have the improvisation skills to bring a definite jazz flavor to their music. Of note: this singer and Noa the previous night proved themselves to be excellent percussionists to boot.

Musicians from all over Spain were presented at the free concerts, of course, along with some from elsewhere in Europe, and one American, the UK-based Jean Toussaint. These took place on two outdoor stages on either side of the Kursall Auditorium.

Kutxabank Kursaal Auditorium and more

As with any good festival there was so much to see and hear, but we would be remiss if we did not at least mention the series of high profile concerts that took place at the Kutxabank Kursaal Auditorium, a modern venue with 1800 seats (when not under COVID restrictions) across the Urumea river from the Victoria Eugenia. The five early evening concerts featured vocalist José James, who played here last in 2016; Latin Grammy Award winning singer, songwriter and poet Concha Buika; saxophonist/flutist Jorge Pardo and flamenco guitarist Juan José "Niño Josele" Heredia, paying tribute to the late Chick Corea, with whom they had collaborated frequently; Éric Séva's Mother of Pearl Quintet honoring Astor Piazzolla in this his centenary year; and singer Sílvia Pérez Cruz, returning for a second year at the Kursaal.

Also of note, the 11:00 am piano recitals at San Telmo Museum which presented Polish pianist and composer Marcin Masecki, in two performances exploring the music of Thelonious Monk, and his modern take on ragtime, respectively, as well as those by Franco D'Andrea, Marco Mezquida, and Iñaki Salvador.

There were two special concerts at Chillida Leku: the one by McLorin Salvant and Fortner, and another by guitarist/vocalist Marc Ribot, and his band Ceramic Dog, performing music from their 2021 release, Hope (Northern Spuy Records). For children specifically there were the four Tikijazz concerts. Tikijazz is a part of the festival initiated in 2015.

All in all the 56th Jazzaldia Festival was a remarkable celebration of the development of jazz as an international art form. Even with the limitations imposed by COVID-19 on travel, and the requirements for masking and social distancing, it was an event worthy of its impressive history. There was one positive result from the pressures of operating during a pandemic. In 2020 Jazzaldia initiated streaming of the Festival, or at least the major events. As a result one can view several performances excerpted from the stream and posted on YouTube by searching for Jazzaldia 2021.

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