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AJAZZGO Festival in Cali, Colombia

Mark Holston By

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Sultana Club and Kuattro Ensammble, two other Cali-based groups, were featured at the city's Comfandi Cultural Center concert space. The four-member Ensammble proved to be one of the festival's most entertaining groups, making extensive use of indigenous percussion instruments and doubling on a variety of instruments. Dressed in white pants and white shirts and sporting loose-fitting neckties, the unit's three male members even changed hats as their program transitioned from one folkloric tradition to another. Trombonist Diego Tovar blew long, spicy solos—moñas—over the churning rhythms. Vibraphonist Katerine Ortega doubled on percussion and added orchestral depth to the arrangements thanks to her four-mallet comping. Bassist Francisco Alvarez and percussionist Fabian Sánchez were flush with piquant rhythmic details.

Sultana Club, a guitar trio with trap drums and double bass, performed its set as a front screen projection featured grimy images of Cali's urban landscape captured by drone sorties. The trio delivered an engaging performance, alternating between high energy forays and more delicately phrased passages. A guitar trio from Argentina, led by Marcelo Torres, was notable for the presence of keyboardist Abel Rogantini, whose fleet, percussive and richly detailed pianistics produced another festival highlight.

Cali-born Diana Arias, a young double bassist, was featured as a member of Argentine pianist Ernesto Jodos' trio. Jodos a standout personality in Buenos Aires' large jazz colony, is known for his cerebral approach to soloing. His pensive and melodically-charming compositions were warmly received by a full house in the Centro Cultural Comfandi. Playing the upright double bass, Dias was often the catalyst for the trio's explorations, laying down intricate ostinatos that anchored the spirit of Jodos' probing, inquisitive works.

During a workshop featuring the trio, I asked Jodos about a recording of his I'd recently discovered—a trio date from 2007 featuring the compositions of Lennie Tristano, Lee Konitz and other bebop icons. To these ears, Jodos' transformation of Tristano's quirky "Two, Not One" offers a profound illustration of the art of reinvention and focused improvisation at the highest level. Jodos politely accepted the praise, explaining to the small gathering the story behind the session and how he approached interpreting frenzied bebop masterworks and converting them into more intellectually focused arrangements for a piano trio.

AJAZZGO, like other festivals in Colombia, depends on the assistance of foreign arts foundations and governments to make appearances by national artists from abroad available. I was unable to attend performances by Israeli vocalist and guitarist Dida Pelled and Swiss trio led by organist Frank Salis and his trio, but I did catch a set by the Dutch quartet The Ploctones. Fronted by guitarist Anton Goudsmit and Efraim Trujillo, a California-born saxophonist, the band was heavily influenced by rock fusion and blues and played off a funk-rooted rhythmic drive to fashion its groove-based repertoire.

The appearance by Chucho Valdés and his Cuban quartet—bassist Yelsy Heredia, percussionist Yaroldy Abreu, and Rodney Yllarza on drums—caused a stir in the opera house. The capacity audience reveled in the pianist's bravado as he delivered his patented virtuosic performance, plush with rhythmic intensity and daring improvisations. At one point, Chucho ripped off his trademark beret-style cap, signaling an even higher level of keyboard expertise. Quotes of Tchaikovsky, Chopin, and Michel Legrand echoed through the concert hall. A solo reading of "Summertime" morphed into a furry of Afro-Cuban rhythms on the quartet's reading of "But Not for Me."

Omar Sosa, Senegalese kora player Seckou Keita and Venezuelan percussionist Gustavo Ovalles capped the festival with a relaxed and regal opera house performance that enthralled the full house. Sosa is perhaps the most unpredictable musician on the planet when it comes to creating unusual partnerships and cross-pollinating seemingly disparate genres. The blend of Afro-Caribbean and West African modes was transfixing —another triumph for the restless Cuban maestro.

One cannot say adios to AJAZZGO and Cali without recognizing the hospitality and comfort of the Cosmos Hotel, a great bargain, and Ringlete, a one-of-a-kind Colombian restaurant in a lovely post-colonial house that is one of the region's true culinary gems.

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