Barcelona Voll-Damm Internacional Jazz Festival 2014

Bruce Lindsay By

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Barcelona Voll-Damm Internacional Jazz Festival
October 31-November 6, 2014

The 46th Barcelona Voll-Damm Internacional Jazz Festival proved once again that jazz is a crucial contemporary art form—one that encourages us to think; one that engages with many, many cultures around the world; one that can create surprise; one that can still be cool and stylish; one that can make us get up and dance and to hell with being cool and stylish. In the expert hands of Artistic Director Joan Anton Cararach and newly-appointed Festival Patron Chucho Valdes the 2014 Festival, running from mid-October to mid-December, brought up-and-coming acts and jazz legends to this beautiful city and its array of venues.

Early information about the festival line-up meant that expectations were high: it was with great pleasure that I accepted an invitation from the festival organisers to attend for seven days. Jazz, classical and contemporary R&B gigs, music masterclasses, open rehearsals, discussions and a wine-tasting-plus-improvisation made this one of the festival's busiest weeks—the quality was consistently high and this was possibly the most enjoyable of my four visits to date.

Valdés was once again a key figure at the festival. Indeed, his creative output during this week made James Brown, the "Hardest Working Man In Showbusiness," seem like JD Salinger. Improvised solo piano, Before And After discussions, open rehearsals and, of course, an appearance at one of Barcelona's most prestigious venues—all part of Valdés' week.

Rudresh Mahanthappa

The week opened strongly, with a performance by alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa's quartet at Luz De Gas. This is a well-established festival venue, a club that combines a funky atmosphere with a degree of comfort and good-quality sound. Mahanthappa's concert focussed on music from Gamak (ACT Music, 2013), on which he fused an array of influences including jazz, ambient, folk, Indian, Chinese and Indonesian musics.

None of Mahanthappa's bandmates had played on the album, but they soon locked in together and gave little hint of hesitation or lack of familiarity with the tunes. In the early part of the set the band alternated between hard-edged, percussive numbers ("Waiting Is Forbidden," "Stay I") and more fluid pieces such as "Abhogi" and "Wrathful Wisdom." As things progressed the players loosened up, the controlled tension of the music becoming freer and wilder.

The lead players could stretch out with confidence over the rhythms crafted by Rich Brown on 6-string electric bass and 23-year-old drummer Paolo Cantarella, who was playing his first ever gig in Europe and his first ever gig with this band. Mahanthappa was at his most impassioned on his opening solo on "Ballad For Troubled Times," which he dedicated to the people of Sri Lanka and Burkina Faso. Guitarist Rez Abbasi flavoured his solos with judicious use of an array of effects pedals, expanding his range of sounds and adding spikiness to "Wrathful Wisdom."

Arto Lindsay

Bespectacled, balding, wearing a sensible gray cardigan over a white t-shirt, Arto Lindsay (perhaps a relation of this reviewer in the distant Scottish past) has every appearance of a friendly if slightly eccentric janitor. But at Luz De Gas on Saturday night this friendly janitor slammed loud, angry chords from his well-worn 12-string Danelectro student model guitar (only 11 strings were present during the performance), blasting waves of noise out across the room and into the ears of a packed house of fans. No surprise, really, as Lindsay's history incorporates many years of work with New York combos such as the Lounge Lizards and DNA as well as joint ventures with John Zorn and others. It wasn't just noise, of course—Lindsay can draw on the influence of Brazilian styles too (although these weren't so apparent at this gig).

Lindsay's musical foundation was rooted in long-time collaborator Melvin Gibbs' electric bass guitar—sometimes low and dark, others fluid and upbeat, Gibbs vied with keyboard player Paul Wilson for the title of the evening's most melodic player. As a vocalist, Lindsay sounded surprisingly youthful and light—somewhat incongruously, like a "Year Of The Cat" period Al Stewart. When he eased back from high volume distortion, playing softly on just two or thee strings, he revealed songs that often paired sweet, pretty, melodies with equally pretty lyrics, (one song about the more physical aspects of love making, to put it mildly, bucked that trend but still bore a certain charm). The band members were all more than a match for Lindsay's attacking playing style. They were also capable of subtlety and control, much to the benefit of the songs and the dynamics of the performance.

Lindsay had an appealing line in between song chat, often funny, occasionally obscure and often self-deprecating. He summed up two previous visits to Barcelona thus—..."last time we played my amplifier broke, the time before that the gig could have been great but it turned out to be nothing special." Saturday night at Luz De Gas was special, though.

Mauricio Vallina's Cuba Clásica

In the town of Sant Cugat, at lunchtime on an unseasonably warm November Sunday, the Cuban classical pianist Mauricio Vallina gave a performance that combined technical skill and virtuosity with an emotional connection to the music, written for the most part by Cuban composers.

Vallina was a participant in the 2013 festival's Rumba Para Bebo, a concert dedicated to the memory of Bebo Valdés, Chucho's father. This concert was billed as "Presented by Chucho Valdés" and Valdés joined Vallina in an introductory discussion before joining the audience in the foyer of the Teatre Auditori Sant Cugat.

In part one of the concert, Vallina included two pieces by Louis Moreau Gottschalk—a New Orleans born composer whose extensive travels included visits to Cuba and many other Caribbean and South American countries. "Souvenir De L'Havane" and "Danza (op.33)" both fitted neatly into Vallina's program.

Cuban composers wrote the rest of the works. Vallina devoted most of the second half to compositions by Ernesto Lecuona. "Suite Afrocubana" drew rapturous applause. "Tres Danzas Cubanas" was the highlight, Vallina's dynamic playing shifting between fast rhythms and lush romantic melodies. It drew an even more rapturous response. Vallina is an intense, serious, on-stage performer: the knowledgeable crowd responded to his obvious devotion to the music with respectful concentration during the pieces and enthusiastic applause after them. Vallina gained a well-deserved standing ovation—Valdés joining in with as much enthusiasm as anyone.

Chucho Valdés And The Afro-Cuban Messengers

Valdés and the Afro-Cuban Messengers performed the Irakere 40! concert at L'Auditori on Tuesday evening, celebrating 40 years since Valdés co-founded this great Cuban band. The Messengers were joined for this event by guest players including trumpeter and former Irakere member Manuel Machado and singer/trumpeter Alexander Abreu.

In its usual quintet line-up, the Afro-Cuban Messengers is a powerful, energetic, band that readily conveys its enthusiasm to an audience. With the addition of five horns the band became even more powerful, even more exciting. The first audience members to start dancing were out of their seats by the middle of the first song—by the middle of the set only a few dogged individuals continued to resist the music's appeal. Abreu and percussionist Dreiser Durruthy Bombalé proved to be the band's strongest on-stage personalities—Abreu's expressive vocals and Bombalé's dance steps (which he carried into the aisles of the theatre during the encore) added to the already highly enjoyable music.

As for Valdés, he spent most of the concert at the piano, leading the band from the comfort of the piano stool as he alternated between taking a lead instrumental role, adding strength and imagination to the rhythm section and conducting his fellow instrumentalists with occasional waves of his hands. At times, he stood up and moved across the stage to signal to specific players or to draw a tune to its close—as the concert progressed, such movements changed from slow, stately, walks to something more akin to a soft-shoe shuffle as he, too, gradually gave in to his band's irresistible grooves.

Kenny Barron And Dave Holland

Kenny Barron and Dave Holland's duo concert at BARTS the following night was quite beautiful, a performance characterised by superb individual musicianship, almost telepathic understanding and exquisite tunes. This was music for the heart—music to lift the spirits that worked in a very different way from the Afro-Cuban Messengers, but was equally successful in achieving an emotional connection with the audience.

The event was billed as The Art Of Conversation, also the title of the duo's 2014 album on the Impulse! label. The recording provided all but three of the night's tunes—Barron's "Pass It On," "What If?" and "Spiral."

The title pretty much says it all—Barron and Holland's musical conversation was an art. The two players interacted perfectly in their exchange of musical ideas, two men at the top of their games. The tunes ranged from Holland's elegiac "Waltz For Wheeler" (dedicated to Kenny Wheeler) to Barron's "What If?" which the composer opened with a spidery, skittish, solo before Holland's walking bass line formed the foundation for Barron's more percussive playing. This was the tune that found Barron sounding most obviously like Thelonious Monk—even more than on Monk's "In Walked Bud," which the pair gave a more fluid treatment than Monk's own.

One of the most impressive aspects of the duo's playing was each man's ability to play with lightness of touch. This talent came across most strongly on "Spiral." The pianist's comping over Holland's bass was so spacious and light as to be almost imperceptible at times: the result was breathtaking in its gentle beauty.

John Legend

John Legend's first Spanish concert, held in the 3000-seat Auditori Del Forum in front of a capacity crowd, was a slick, well-planned and executed show. Legend and his band, which included a string quartet, delivered a selection of songs that were already familiar to his fans.

The show was meticulously programmed, the musicians were note-perfect, the light show was impressive and Legend's showmanship and appeal had the crown on-side from note one—every mention of Barcelona brought a barrage of cheers and whoops from the audience. However, as the evening progressed it was clear that there would be no surprises, no bursts of improvisation, no extended solos from any of the instrumentalists: which was just fine as far as the crowd was concerned.

Legend's between-song patter was surprisingly old school: in the early part of the set it included a mini-resumé, complete with brief piano phrases from hits he had worked on for other artists. Two covers—Michael Jackson's "Rock With You" and Simon And Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water"—were also old school, but drew loud applause. However, it was Legend's own hits—"Maxine," "Green Light" and "Ordinary People"—that got the biggest cheers. Legend returned to the stage alone for a brief encore, then it was over—the crew managing to remove most of the gear from the stage before the last of the audience had left the hall.

Discussion, Education And Wine

There have been plenty of debates about what music a jazz festival should program and no doubt some people might query the presence of John Legend on this bill. One thing is clear, however: the Barcelona Jazz Festival is about more than just the music. The 2014 festival followed the fine tradition of previous years with an extensive list of events that mixed music with other elements.

The 2014 Masterclass program was extensive, with Barron, Holland, Mahanthappa, Gary Burton and Julian Lage all sharing their knowledge in this week alone. The classes drew large audiences, including plenty of students from the Conservatori Del Liceu, which hosted the events. The musicians gave plenty of opportunity to ask questions and for a few lucky students there was the chance to perform with these jazz greats and receive some constructive comments on their playing.

Literature also featured in the week's program, when author Ashley Kahn, another familiar Barcelona Jazz Festival face, gave a presentation on Carlos Santana's newly-published autobiography—The Universal Tone: Bringing My Story To Light (Little, Brown)—which Santana wrote with the assistance of Kahn and Hal Miller. Kahn's presentation gave an insight into Santana's life, his intentions for the book and his spirituality. Kahn also spoke about Santana's love of jazz musicians such as Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock.

Kahn emphasised Santana's direct involvement in the planning and structure of the book: he also stressed that it's not a history of Santana the band, but a biography of Santana the man. Of course, given that the band has been in existence for around 45 years this is still a book that offers plenty of insight into the group as well as its superstar guitarist and leader. Despite time constraints Kahn managed to give a real flavor of the book's content (it runs to around 540 pages) and in so doing he gave the audience an intriguing glimpse into the life of a man for whom he has great respect and admiration.

Valdés took part in the JazzTimes "Before And After" session, in front of a live audience at the Conservatori Del Liceu, with enthusiasm. It's a simple premise: a track is played, the guest is invited to comment, the musician is revealed and the guest is asked to comment once again. Kahn, who presented the session, had selected the tunes and performers with great care, offering Valdés the chance to discuss a range of pianists including Erroll Garner, James Booker and Valdés' particular favorite, Wynton Kelly.

The seemingly ever-present and always cheerful Valdés was the guest musician at the 2014 Monvinic Experience. The Experience combines fine wines and excellent music in an intimate restaurant venue (Monvinic's owner, Sergi Ferrer-Salat, received the festival's Gold Medal this year, for the work of the Fundacio De Musica Ferrer-Salat). Each year a sommelier selects a range of wines to be tasted by the audience members, with a guest musician improvising short pieces as their personal response to each wine. It's become something of a festival tradition since it began in 2011 with Kurt Rosenwinkel and there was a long waiting list of people hoping to join around 120 wine and jazz lovers who had been able to obtain tickets.

The 2014 Experience featured eight wines chosen by sommelier Josep Roca, from El Celler De Can Roca in Girona. Valdés had the honor of improvising short pieces in response to each of the wines. For jazz lovers, it's an unusual but intimate way to enjoy top-class musicianship. For wine lovers it's an unusual way to enjoy top-class wine. For lovers of wine and jazz (who seemed to be by far in the majority) it's a small slice of Heaven.

Photo Credit: Bruce Lindsay

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