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AJAZZGO Festival in Cali, Colombia

Mark Holston By

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Despite the city’s reputation as the capital of Colombia’s salsa scene, there is scant evidence that the local festival has embraced this variant of often jazzy, rhythmically-potent Afro-Caribbean dance music.
AJAZZGO Festival
Cali, Colombia
September 12-17, 2017

September is jazz festival month in the South American nation of Colombia. Four major cities—Bogotá, Medellín, Cali and Barranquilla—and Pasto, a smaller provincial municipality—stage well-oiled multi-day events stocked with international and regional jazz talent. The five festivals work collaboratively to bring major artists to the country, allowing them to perform in more than one locale on the same tour. Yet each festival is known for its own stylistic orientation. Medellín and Barranquilla are heavily oriented toward Latin jazz, salsa and Cuban groups, while Bogotá, reflective of its cosmopolitan urban character, favors a more mainstream approach.

Cali, the country's third largest city, likewise boasts its own unique spin on jazz festival programming. And, despite the city's reputation as the capital of Colombia's salsa scene, there is scant evidence that the local festival has embraced this variant of often jazzy, rhythmically-potent Afro-Caribbean dance music. The slogan of the annual AJAZZGO series of concerts—"An encounter of experimental and fusion jazz creators"—says it all, except that the "fusion" in this case celebrates the myriad blending of music idioms that have evolved in the region and not "smooth jazz." Cali's festival is anchored by several pricy, showcase concerts that are presented in the city's century-old, Italian-style opera house and feature high profile artists. Curiously, the Teatro Municipal concerts are preceded by a recording of Cali's official municipal anthem, during which patrons stand reverentially and sing along to the composition's martial strains.

This year the duo of Japanese pianist Hiromi and Colombian harpist Edmar Castaneda and two renowned Cuban pianists—Jesus "Chucho" Valdés and Omar Sosa and their groups— opened and closed the six-day festival. In between, less formal performances and workshops, offered at little or no expense to festival patrons, featured lesser known but nonetheless artistically accomplished national, regional and international musicians.

The AJAZZGO festival, entering its 18th season, is largely the brainchild of Diego Pombo, a former musician and famed painter who serves as the event's artistic director. The bearded and bespectacled artist featured a collection of his jazz and music-themed paintings in an exhibit hall adjacent to the municipal opera house. Pombo's signature style builds on the formality of the posed group settings from the early days of jazz in a tropical-surrealism incarnation that incorporates subtle— often coyly hidden—references that range from the devil himself to Simón Bolívar, Colombia's most revered national hero. Pombo's style is ravishing in its bold color scheme and sensual, tropical character. Several examples are included in the Slideshow.

An enthusiastic capacity audience was present for festival's opening night, featuring Hiromi and native son, folk harpist Castañeda. In recent years, the native of Bogotá has emerged as one of Latin America's most celebrated and unique jazz musicians. Now a resident of New York City, Castañeda is the latest Colombian jazz artist to attain international notoriety, joining the ranks of such national jazz luminaries as pianists Hector Martignon and Edy Martínez, woodwind artist Justo Almario, percussionists Memo Acevedo and Samuel Torres, and vocalist Claudia Gómez.

The duo is currently on a wide-ranging international tour in support of their new album on Telarc, Live in Montreal. The interplay between the two musicians, brimming with spontaneity and genuine emotion, is the key to their chemistry. Hiromi occasionally plucked the strings of her grand piano, producing the impression of two harps on stage. The ebb-and-flow of their improvisations and charismatic stage presence set a high bar for what was to follow.

AJAZZGO highlighted several other national artists of note. In its opening slot at the open-air Teatro Al Aire Libre los Cristales, a well-designed amphitheater in the mountains on the outskirts of the city, Cununao leavened its sound with rhythms spawned by the country's Pacific Coast Afro community. Led by pianist Giovanni Caldas, a Cali native, the quartet featured such regional percussion instruments as the bombo, a drum played with a mallet and a stick. Rhythmic passion and a sophisticated approach to ensemble playing showcased Caldas' haunting compositions. Saxophonist Jacobo Vélez, another local jazz pro, sat in and provided vivacious solos.

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