Barcelona Voll-Damm Internacional Jazz Festival: Barcelona, Spain, November 21-26, 2011

Barcelona Voll-Damm Internacional Jazz Festival: Barcelona, Spain, November 21-26, 2011
Bruce Lindsay By

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Barcelona Voll-Damm Internacional Jazz Festival
Barcelona, Spain
November 21-26, 2011
The Barcelona Voll-Damm Internacional Jazz Festival is an established part of the cultural life of this vibrant Spanish city. The 2011 festival was the 43rd, and once again it brought some exceptionally fine jazz to a host of equally fine venues, attracting stars of the stature of Maria Schneider, Eliane Elias, Randy Weston and Brad Mehldau.

Barcelona is Spain's second biggest city and the capital of Catalonia, a region with its own language and rich cultural tradition. It's a bustling, busy, but friendly place, with plenty of attractions. Add a major jazz festival to the city's list of attractions, and the chance to visit becomes irresistible. So when the organizers of the 2011 Festival offered that chance there was only one response to the invitation—an excited "Yes, please." The program for the week of 21 to 26 November proved especially interesting in its mix of artists, venues and events—and the week also delivered some unseasonably warm and bright weather, making it even more of a pleasure to walk around the city's broad, tree-lined avenues.

City-based jazz festivals come in many shapes and sizes: intensive three- or four-day festivals in single venues that cram as much music as possible into each day; jazz strands within more general arts festivals; one- or two-week festivals with many events running concurrently, leaving fans to make major decisions about what to see (and what not to see). The Barcelona Voll-Damm Internacional Jazz Festival takes a more relaxed approach, stretching from mid-October to early December and with just one, or occasionally two or three, concerts each evening. For the jazz-loving Barcelona resident it's an embarrassment of riches. For a visitor spending a few days in this beautiful city it guarantees some big names and offers the chance to experience some potential surprises. In just one week, the Festival combined music, wine, portrait photography, talks and master classes and served them up in a varied host of venues.

Chapter Index
  1. Monday, November 21: The Omar Sosa Monvínic Experience
  2. Tuesday, November 22: The Tigran Hamasyan Trio
  3. Wednesday November 23: Cesc Miralta Quartet
  4. Thursday November 24: The Pat Metheny Trio
  5. Friday November 25: Dave Holland and Pepe Habichuela 'Hands'
  6. Education And The Visual Arts

Monday, November 21: The Omar Sosa Monvínic Experience

Cuban pianist Omar Sosa's solo concert was one of the most original events of the Festival. The program promised a unique lineup for a jazz event: a pianist; a prose writer; and six sommeliers. The experience did not disappoint. Monvínic, a Barcelona restaurant of striking contemporary design, was the venue and the premise was simple. The sommeliers selected eight Spanish wines. Sosa and Barcelona writer Empar Moliner created music or narratives inspired by each wine. The audience shared long dining tables that afforded the opportunity for good conversation, the tasting of all of these excellent wines, and the experience of Sosa's creative and engaging music.

Omar Sosa

The Monvínic Experience that resulted was a heady mix of music, storytelling and wine. The appearance, and tasting, of each wine was preceded by a short description, read by its maker; Moliner's own reading of her response to the wine—best described, perhaps, as a fantasy narrative—and Sosa's musical response.

Sosa is a delightful musician who seemed to be immersed in every note he played. His eight short pieces were considered, thoughtful, compositions that showed his mastery not only of the piano keyboard but also of the use of prerecorded sounds of wine being poured or bottles being opened, which he incorporated sympathetically into some of the pieces. At times he also added short phrases of wordless vocals: whether these were parts of the compositions or improvised expressions of Sosa's pleasure in performing isn't clear, but they were certainly joyous.

Unsurprisingly, given the nature of this unique event, many audience members were engaged in excited conversation as Sosa began each piece, but the music soon hushed the talk as the pianist gained his audience's attention within a few bars. While the overall feel of Sosa's tunes was gentle and reflective, each one had its own character, as did the wines. Hence his music for "Casa Castillo Pie Franco 2006" was a bluesy, upbeat tune with hints of stride piano, while the tune that accompanied "Pardas Aspriu 2009" was a lovely, flowing ballad, and his delicately mournful response to "HMR Advent Sumoll 2008," the final wine of the evening, brought just a hint of valedictory sadness.

Tuesday, November 22: The Tigran Hamasyan Trio

Luz de Gas, the venue for the Tigran Hamasyan Trio's Barcelona debut, presented a stark contrast to the modernist chic of Monvínic. The club has a warm, lived-in appeal, with its rich, dark colors and slightly faded glamour—an Art Nouveau feel. The Trio offered a more contemporary take on jazz, but still seemed at home on the Luz de Gas' stage.

The young Armenian pianist has been attracting plenty of press since the release of his solo album A Fable (Verve International, 2011) and much has been made of his energetic live performances. As a result, expectations were high for this event, but his concert was a relatively muted affair, with little of this energy apparent in Hamasyan's performance. Occasionally the pianist jumped up and down, or played standing up for short periods, but he was generally content to remain seated as he played.

The band presented tunes from A Fable, rearranged for the trio lineup. Hamasyan's version of "Some Day My Prince Will Come"—centered on drummer Nate Wood's solid, rock-inflected, percussion—was original and impressive. His own compositions, such as "The Legend Of The Moon," gained some extra dynamic from the added bass and drums but despite some powerful and inventive percussion from Wood the trio never really caught fire and Hamasyan's brief beatboxing performance was rather repetitive.

Wednesday November 23: Cesc Miralta Quartet

Ben Webster, while on "Celler Güell," one of the concert's more up-tempo numbers, his sound was more assertive and angular. His soprano playing was edgier, combining strength of tone with romanticism to successfully evoke the impact of this beautiful building on "Sagrada Família." Miralta's understated, laidback approach to playing—and his obvious reverence for Gaudí's work—did mean that the performance lacked dynamics, but the music was well-crafted and engaging.

Thursday November 24: The Pat Metheny Trio

The Pat Metheny Trio sold out one of Barcelona's largest venues, L'Auditori, and played for over two hours to a hall filled with fans of the guitarist's music who greeted almost every tune as if it was an old friend. Indeed, many of the tunes were old friends, as Metheny delved into his extensive back catalogue to craft his set list. His opening duet with bassist Larry Grenadier, Brad Mehldau's "Unrequited," came from Metheny and Mehldau's 2006 collaboration, Metheny Mehldau (Nonesuch Records); "Always and Forever" is on the guitarist's Secret Story (Nonesuch, 1992); and "James" originally appeared on the Metheny Group's Offramp (ECM, 1982).

The three musicians—with drummer Bill Stewart completing the lineup— were technically impressive throughout, but Grenadier was the heart and soul of the music, playing with invention as well as strength across the entire set. Metheny played fluidly and precisely on a range of electric guitars, including his Pikasso guitar with its multiple necks, but seemed to lack any real emotional connection with the music until he turned to his acoustic instruments. "Find Me In Your Dreams" and an absolutely gorgeous solo encore performance of Lennon and McCartney's "And I Love Her" were the concert highlights.

Towards the end of the set curtains were drawn back to reveal The Orchestrion. Metheny's performance with this somewhat eccentric contraption resulted in some delightful sounds and showcased the Orchestrion's visual appeal, but its appearance was brief. Given the sheer complexity of the machine, the effort involved in its transport and maintenance, and its (possibly very large) carbon footprint, it was surprising that Metheny didn't make more of use of it. Given the exhaustive humor which Roger Ruskin-Spear and Bruce Lacey drew out of their own far simpler machines in the '60s (Ruskin-Spear's recordings with the Human Leg, a thinly-disguised Theremin, and Trouser Press epitomize this), Metheny is underplaying the Orchestrion's comedy potential at the very least.

Friday November 25: Dave Holland and Pepe Habichuela 'Hands'

In a city filled with outstanding architecture, and a week full of terrific jazz, the Palau de la Música Catalana is an exceptionally fine concert hall, and the Dave Holland and Pepe Habichuela flamenco concert was a musical highlight. There are times when the mutual respect between musicians, and the sheer pleasure they get from playing together, is all-pervasive, and as the group left the stage to a standing ovation there was a real sense that this had been a very special event.

The Palau de la Música opened in 1908. The hall itself is filled with statues, carvings, multi-colored mosaics and other art that offer plenty of visual distractions for audiences that might be less than taken with what's happening on the stage. No need for such distractions at this event, however, as the band captivated the crowd from the first beat.

Holland stood in the center of the stage, the other musicians seated in an arc around him: to his left, Habichuela and his fellow guitarist Josemi Carmona; to his right, percussionists Juan Carmona and Bandolero. Each man is a superb player, investing the music with technical proficiency, sensitivity and fun. As a quintet, this was a powerful combo with a rhythmic drive that could blow away many electric outfits- -a power that came over strongly on the encore, "Tangos." Over the course of the set the band also performed in a mix of smaller combinations. Habichuela's solo performance was powerfully affecting, as was his duet with Holland on the mournful "Camarón." Habichuela left the stage for Holland's "Joyride," giving Carmona and the percussionists the chance to stretch out—a chance they took full advantage of—before the quintet came together again for the closing numbers.

Education And The Visual Arts

The Barcelona Voll-Damm Internacional Jazz Festival didn't offer just a concert program. It also included a photographic exhibition, live interviews between journalists and musicians (Ashley Kahn with Rudresh Mahanthappa and Ted Panken blindfolding Enrico Rava), a series of master classes and a set of talks from its official photographer, Michael Weintrob.

Throughout the Festival the Gran Hotel Havana hosted Weintrob's exhibition of surrealist portraits, Instrument Head. The photographs were a small selection from a total of over 200 which form a project the New York based photographer has been working on for five years. Weintrob's idea is simple, but effective: he photographs musicians as they obscure their faces with objects— instruments or items of clothing for example—that have some association with their lives as performers. Hence Lenny White (pictured right) obscured his face with a cymbal, Bootsy Collins hid his features behind the body of his bass guitar, and reed player Anat Cohen used three clarinets to cover her face.

Given that portrait photography usually places great emphasis on the subject's face, obscuring this part of the body might sound contradictory: but Weintrob's approach succeeds admirably. There are visual clues to the identity of each person, and the stance, the placement of the hands, the personality of each sitter, all come together to create portraits that are respectful yet original, humorous but informative—the face is hidden but the person is revealed.

Weintrob's exhibition was sponsored by the United States Consulate in Barcelona, as was a series of talks which he delivered to groups ranging from school pupils to photography students at the Institut d'Estudis Fotogràfics de Catalunya. While Weintrob's talks were about photography rather than music, many of his Instrument Head participants are from the world of jazz and their strong visual images might just encourage some of these students to check out the music as well.

Metheny and Holland also added to the educational aspect of the festival, with each man giving a master class at the Conservatori del Liceu. Each class attracted large and enthusiastic audiences, consisting mostly of Conservatori students. Metheny ran his master class as a question and answer session, talking politely and modestly about his own talents as a writer ("My skills as an improviser are way beyond my skills as a composer") and responding to one student's question about why he's a musician with "I don't have any choice." Despite having a guitar at his side during the class Metheny was reluctant to perform, even when asked to by audience members, and only played briefly at the end of the session.

Holland showed no such reluctance to play, and bookended his master class with virtuoso performances on his double bass. He closed with a strong, lyrical and punchy performance of John Coltrane's "Mr PC" that was a delight from beginning to end. In between, he spoke about his experiences as a bassist, his philosophy of life and his love of playing with musicians "who can listen," answered questions thoughtfully and gave a real insight into his approach to his art. In many ways, Holland's class epitomized the spirit of the Festival: open, honest, musically superb and friendly. The only thing missing was a few glasses of wine.

Photo Credits
Luz de Gas and Sagrada Familia: Bruce Lindsay

All others: Michael Weintrob.

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