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Barcelona Voll-Damm Jazz Festival: Barcelona, Spain, November 24-30, 2012

Barcelona Voll-Damm Jazz Festival: Barcelona, Spain, November 24-30, 2012
Bruce Lindsay BY

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Barcelona Voll-Damm International Jazz Festival
Barcelona, Spain
November 24-30, 2012
Sometimes picking a few festival highlights is easy. A big name turns on the charm, one or two young Turks announce their arrival on the scene, someone famous steps up at a jam session—the rest is okay, just nothing special. The Barcelona Voll-Damm Internacional Jazz Festival makes the process frustratingly difficult—it's a festival full of highlights, surprises and memorable moments, and the 2012 incarnation—the 44—proved to be no exception. Big names featured in abundance—pianists Chick Corea and Brad Mehldau both gave concerts in the final week; saxophonist Sonny Rollins, bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding and singer Melody Gardot all appeared earlier—and some lesser-known acts and more unusual events left their own unforgettable impressions.

The 2012 Barcelona Voll-Damm Internacional Jazz Festival lasted for over a month, from late-October to November 30. Thanks to the imagination of its Artistic Director, Joan Anton Cararach, its programmed mix of events across a range of venues made the most of the city's architectural beauty and ensured that festival-goers could experience visual arts, academic debate, expert insight and the sommelier's craft, as well as jazz of the highest quality. Barcelona is the capital of Catalonia, in the north-east of Spain. It's a region which is fiercely—and justly—proud of its culture, and Catalan musicians appeared throughout the 2012 program alongside performers from across Europe and America.

Barcelona is home to what might just be the world's loveliest concert hall: the Palau De La Música, as well as the more contemporary L'Auditori concert hall and clubs like Luz de Gas. All of these featured as regular festival venues alongside less obvious spaces such as the Conservatori del Liceu, the Institut Français and the Monvínic restaurant. Without exception, the chosen venues suited the personalities of the performers and their musical styles. This final week of the 2012 festival showcased most of the venues with an array of performances and presentations.

Saturday, November 24

The final Saturday of the festival offered two examples of fusion. In Sala 3 of L'Auditori the Francesco Bearzatti Tinissima Quartet presented Monk & Roll, while later, at Luz de Gas, Catalan bass guitarist Carles Benavent brought jazz and flamenco together.

As the title of Bearzatti's show suggested, this music melded the works of pianist Thelonious Monk with some classic rock rhythms from more recent decades. For some Monk fans this may have bordered on the sacrilegious, but it was done with remarkable inventiveness, great good humor and energetic, skilled, musicianship. The Italian quartet's instrumental lineup of saxophones, clarinet, trumpet, bass and percussion was augmented by the "human effects" of trumpeter Giovanni Falzone—a variety of whistles, finger pops and squeals that fit surprisingly well with the instruments. By the end of the concert it was almost as if "Bemsha Swing" was made to mash up with Queen's "Another One Bites The Dust," "In Walked Bud" proved to be a perfect partner for Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean," and, perhaps most surprisingly, "Round Midnight" and The Police's "Walking On The Moon" sounded as if they were made for each other.

Benavent has had a long career including over two decades of work with guitarist Paco de Lucia and Chick Corea. His fusion of flamenco and jazz was notable for some killer grooves, but it also highlighted the romantic and emotionally engaging playing of this most distinctive instrumentalist. Benavent played a five-string, fretted bass guitar—designed and built by Barcelona luthier Jerzy Drozd—mixing Jaco Pastorius' fluidity and energy with the melodic sensibility of a flamenco guitarist to create his own unique sound, characterized by a lightness of touch, rich chordal play and swift, delicate, single-note runs.

Keyboardist Roger Mas and drummer Roger Blàvia—who both appear on Benavent's Un, Dos, Tres (Bebyne Records, 2012)—proved to be excellent partners for the bassist. The gentle "Mario" and "Flamenquillo" highlighted the warmth of Benavent's playing, while Mas' "Novembre" gave the keyboardist a chance to take the lead role as Benavent and Blàvia locked together as a tight, funky, rhythm section.

Sunday, November 25

Sunday was the day of the young Turks, a day when any worries about the lack of up-and- coming jazz talent were blown away by music that harked back to the big bands and hard bop outfits of yesterday while looking forward to new directions.

In the case of the Sant Andreu Jazz Band, directed by Joan Chamorro, these were definitely young Turks—some of the players still have three or four years before they become teenagers. The band played at the Arteria Paral-Lel, a recently renovated theater which, with its excellent seating and acoustics, seems set to be a major venue for future festivals. Although some of the players looked nervous onstage, the band sounded tighter than many big bands with much greater experience. Chamorro led the group through some classic big band numbers which, pleasingly, featured a range of male and female vocalists in addition to the instrumentalists.

Later in the evening the Luz de Gas played host to the Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah Quintet, performing a set which included tunes from Christian aTunde Adjuah (Concord, 2012). Trumpeter Scott and pianist Lawrence Fields were the only Quintet members who remained from the album session—bassist Luques Curtis, drummer Corey Fonville and the excellent young alto saxophonist Braxton Cook completed the lineup for this gig. This was a visually, as well as musically, engaging band, with Scott as its heart on both counts.

Scott dedicated "Isadora," which first appeared on Live From Newport (Concord, 2008), to his fiancée Isadora Mendez, who was in the audience. The performance was exquisite, and featured fine solos from Scott and Cook. By contrast, the band's take on Donald Harrison's "Burning" showed how readily the Quintet could deliver a fast, hard bop number, Fonville and Curtis forming a powerhouse rhythm section. For an encore, Scott offered the audience a choice between Monk's "Blue Monk" and Jay-Z and Kanye West's "No Church In The Wild." The vote being somewhat equivocal, the band played both tunes, much to the delight of the packed club.

Monday, November 26

Monday was (un)officially Bob Belden Day at the Conservatori del Liceu. The arranger, producer and musician gave a lunchtime master class, submitted to a "Before And After" test of his musical knowledge and opinions in conversation with author Ashley Kahn, and then gave a concert with his Animation band. Belden's long experience in jazz gave him a wealth of stories and anecdotes with which to illustrate his talks, but the latest line up of Animation showed that he's still developing and extending his musical horizons even as he acknowledges his musical past.

This is a young band; with the exception of the 56-year- old Belden all of the musicians are under 30. The emphasis throughout this set was on tunes from Transparent Heart (Rare Noise, 2012), which was recorded by this lineup. The group included the title track, which featured a strong extended duet from drummer Matt Young and bass guitarist Jacob Smith, and "Seven Towers," an emotionally stark tune about 9/11 which included emergency services communications recorded on that day. Belden still found time for a couple of old Miles Davis favorites, though: "Bitches Brew" and "Miles Runs The Voodoo Down" got strong performances, with Belden's soprano saxophone and Pete Clagett's trumpet making a sonically elegant partnership.

Tuesday, November 27

For sheer out-and-out fun the standout gig of the week was the almost insanely energetic performance by Fanfare Ciocârlia at Luz de Gas. The band, featuring 12 gypsy musicians from northern Romania, played a set filled with up-tempo tunes, each one aimed fairly and squarely at pushing the audience's pleasure buttons. While the approach may have left the music a little short on variety, in this live context it worked. The audience responded to the band's rhythmic heartbeat from the off, dancing wildly, cheering, joining in with vocal refrains and generally displaying behavior not usually seen at a jazz festival—crowd surfing and stage invading with gusto.

Wednesday, November 28

The Brad Mehldau Trio brought a more considered and thoughtful approach to the main hall of L'Auditori on Wednesday night; a little too considered, perhaps, as the performance was high on technical skill but rather limited dynamically despite drummer Jeff Ballard and bassist Larry Grenadier's best efforts. Pianist Mehldau played beautifully, especially on Lennon and McCartney's "And I Love Her," and the audience responded warmly, even if stage invasions were never in the cards.

Earlier in the evening the first Some Enchanted Pairings from author Will Friedwald and Head Sommelier Cèsar Cànovas took place at Monvínic. The restaurant has become established as the home for some of the festival's most unusual and fascinating events and this was no exception. For each presentation (the second was on Friday) Friedwald selected two versions of six classic songs and spoke about the history of the songs and the different recordings. To accompany each pair of songs Cànovas—voted Best Sommelier In Spain in 2011—chose a wine, giving a brief explanation of his choice before the audience listened and tasted.

Friedwald's intensive knowledge of and enthusiasm for the American Songbook was clear. His stories about the songs and about the versions he had chosen were engaging and informative, delving deep into some of the more esoteric aspects of the jazz story. Cànovas put much thought into his selections, matching the lyric of a song to the flavors and sensations of the wine—hence the sound of "Stardust" sung by Hoagy Carmichael and then Bing Crosby was matched by a Makedonia wine from Greece, while Frank Sinatra and Anita O'Day's versions of "Night And Day" was accompanied a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.

Thursday, November 29

Spike Wilner's lunchtime master class at the Conservatori combined insights into the history of jazz piano, illustrated by the pianist's arrangements of tunes from Willie "The Lion" Smith and James P. Johnson, among others, with further insights gained from his co-ownership of Smalls jazz club in New York. Wilner's musicianship came over strongly, as did his philosophy on jazz club management, at least as it applies to Smalls. Interestingly, Wilner also spoke of his plans for the club's music policy, both in terms of the use of new technologies and its potential for impacting positively on musicians' income streams.

It was France's turn to provide the entertainment on Thursday evening, hosting an event at the Institut Français which combined visual images and music; more specifically, the photographs of Guy Le Querrec (pictured left) and the music of reed players Michel Portal and Louis Sclavis, bassist Henri Texier and drummer Christophe Marguet in a project titled L'Oeil De L'Éléphant. The combination worked superbly. Le Querrec, a Magnum photographer whose iconic photos include images of singer Nina Simone and trumpeter Miles Davis, has an eye for the unguarded moment as well as an ability to capture artists in performance.

This performance of L'Oeil De L'Éléphant grouped Le Querrec's photographs together in sections with titles such as "Feet and Hands," "On The Trail Of Big Foot" (about a journey to commemorate the Battle of Wounded Knee) and "Optical Illusions" (accompanied by bassist Charles Mingus' "Fables Of Faubus"). Texier and Marguet captured not only the rhythm of the changing images, but also the rhythms within the images. Sclavis and Portal ably reflected the emotions displayed in the pictures with their own playing: Sclavis concentrated on saxophones while Portal switched smoothly from saxophone to bass clarinet to bandoneon. If there was ever a definitive demonstration of the empathy between photography and music, this was it.

Friday, November 30

The prospect of hearing one of the world's finest trios in one of its loveliest music venues made this Friday night concert one of the most eagerly awaited of the festival. No pressure there, then. When the Chick Corea Trio took to the stage of the sold-out Palau de la Música the three musicians—Corea, bassist Christian McBride and drummer Brian Blade—certainly didn't look like a band under pressure. They looked like three musicians out to have a good time. Expectations were, if anything, exceeded by their set, notable for the musicians' empathy, the exceptionally high standard of their playing and the varied moods of the music.

The evening opened with the presentation to Corea of the Barcelona Voll-Damm Internacional Jazz Festival's Gold Medal, which he accepted modestly before being joined by McBride and Blade for the set's opener, a lively "On Green Dolphin Street." There was a strong Spanish influence on "Armando's Rhumba," and Corea's playing on "Pledge For Peace" was particularly moving, while McBride and Blade both produced fluid, swinging, solos on Monk's "Work." McBride and Blade were constantly in motion, sparking off each other's playing and seemingly with permanent smiles on their faces. Their enjoyment was palpable, their creativity seemingly effortless: this might just be the finest rhythm section in jazz. Corea was more restrained, concentrating on the keyboard with occasional signals to his collaborators as he produced music full of beautiful melody and fascinating harmonies.

Carles Benavent—Corea's longtime friend and musical collaborator—joined the trio for two encores: "Beautiful Love" and a strikingly warm and melodic performance of Corea's "Spain." Benavent was, once more, in exceptional form and immediately fit in with the other three players. The final notes of "Spain" brought the 44th Barcelona Voll-Damm Internacional Jazz Festival to a fittingly gorgeous close. The Festival was a musical triumph, audience responses were overwhelmingly positive, the weather was kind, the city was welcoming— and the 45th Festival can't come too soon.

Photo Credit
All photos: Bruce Lindsay

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