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Barranquijazz 2015: Trombone Heaven in the Tropics

Mark Holston By

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Amazing is a good word to describe much of what takes place at this yearly event at Barranquilla, a sprawling and swelteringly hot port city on Colombia’s Caribbean coast.
It's impossible to know beforehand what individual performance at a multi-day jazz festival will be remembered as a certifiable highlight. Sometimes the key factor that makes such a magic moment possible is unpredictable and comes out of the blue. At Colombia's recent annual Barranquijazz Festival, the curiosity of a festival staff member led to a particularly memorable outing by Brazilian trombonist Raul De Souza and his quintet when they tackled "Nanã" by the late composer Moacir Santos. Although the funky Afro-Brazilian tune has been part of the brass man's core repertoire since the mid-1960s, it had not been picked to be on the festival set-list. That's when Jennifer Cabana kicked into high gear.

"I love doing research on all of our featured artists," the young woman who served as the festival staff's communications specialist comments. "When I started to search out YouTube videos by Raul, I discovered his version of 'Nanã' and immediately fell in love with it," Jennifer recounts. "It is so hip and catchy! I was disappointed when the band arrived and I learned that they weren't going to perform it. But I pleaded, and they responded favorably to my request." With its emphasis on lower register blowing and a distinctive melody that quickly grabs attention, the song is perfectly suited to showcase De Souza's many talents. "Fortunately, I got to hear it live," Jennifer adds, "and it was amazing!"

Indeed, "amazing" is a good word to describe much of what takes place at this yearly event at Barranquilla, a sprawling and swelteringly hot port city on Colombia's Caribbean coast. Having just concluded its 19th edition, Barranquijazz owes its success to a carefully-cultivated formula for achieving the desired stylistic diversity and appealing to the local audience's eclectic tastes. That's the point I made when asked by reporter for El Heraldo, the major local daily newspaper, to describe the evolution I'd seen in the festival since I first attended seven years ago. Frankly, what I'd witnessed wasn't as much an evolution as a strict adherence to a fine-tuned programming philosophy that has proven its worth throughout the festival's past two decades.

Thanks to the vision of a trio of local jazz enthusiasts who lead the festival (publisher Samuel Minski, airline pilot Mingo de la Cruz, and radio personality Tony Caballero), a typical Barranquijazz line-up boasts the presence of one or two mainstream jazz marquee names, a Brazilian artist of legendary status, a hefty dose of notable Latin jazz and salsa groups, and a one-of-a-kind Latin music headliner meant to expand the audience beyond the community of jazz and tropical music aficionados.

This year that star-power artist was the ageless Jose Feliciano. The Puerto Rican pop star and his quintet performed a flawless set before an SRO audience in the Salon Jumbo, a cavernous theater in the city's ritzy country club. Feliciano's voice still has its sweet, bluesy edge and his guitar chops remain considerable and impressive. His versions of "Light My Fire" and Tito Puente's "Oye, Como Va," among a long parade of hits familiar to the Spanish-speaking audience, were particularly effective.

The Barcelona, Spain-based Jaume Vilaseca Cuarteto was the fortunate group pegged to open for the wildly popular Feliciano and benefit from the guaranteed presence of an audience of several thousand. Keyboardist Vilaseca, who had been featured at the same festival in 2010, led his tenor sax-fronted combo through a set of what festival organizers properly termed "jazz puro"—smart and flawlessly performed Euro-jazz with equal emphasis on rhythmic groove and intellectual improvisational forays.

Another modernist standard bearer, composer and pianist Danilo Pérez, was given an enthusiastic welcome for his trio session in Barranquilla's recently renovated municipal theater, the acoustically warm Teatro Amira de la Rosa. The Panamanian and his trio stuck mostly to his brand of somewhat minimalist and cerebral fare, including a melodically-oblique version of countryman Rubén Blades '70s era salsa hit "Paula C," an interpretation of which the singer once commented "I have no idea what he's done to my song! But I like it." Pérez hit all the right notes when he launched into a meaty montuno—the piano vamp used in such tropical styles as salsa that instantly drives audiences into a guaranteed frenzy. The pianist also ignited a passionate response when he rendered a pensively-articulated medley of cherished boleros, including the immortal "Bésame Mucho."

Other mainstage concerts focused almost exclusively on variations of Latin jazz and salsa. Trombonist Doug Beavers addressed both sides of the stylistic equation. A veteran of both the Spanish Harlem Orchestra and pianist Eddie Palmieri's salsa ensemble, Beavers brought an all-star ensemble of a dozen from the U.S. to perform selections from his current ArtistShare release Titanes del Trombón—a celebration of the role of the trombone in Latin music. Along with the leader, the four 'bone frontline featured two veterans of countless Fania All-Stars concerts and recordings, Reynaldo Jorge and Lewis Kahn, also a long-serving member of Tito Puente's orchestra, and Costa Rica native Luis Bonilla, arguably the unit's most accomplished jazz soloist. The group's rhythm section included such notables as former Puente orchestra bongo player Johnny Rodriguez and timbalero Luis Quintero while lead vocals and back-up coros were in the capable hands of soneros (lead salsa vocalist) Frankie Vázquez, another Puente alum, and Carlos Cascante. The tight harmonies and swaggering muscularity of the 'bone section illuminated and added a new dimension to such works as Brazilian composer Edu Lobo's "Borandá" and "Esa Mujer," a Cascante composition that has emerged as an important new salsa classic. The audience was particularly responsive to the soaring violin solos crafted by Kahn, long recognized for his talents on both instruments.

Colombian pianist, arranger and composer Edy Martinez & His Jazz Orchestra, today a professor of music at the Universidad de Nariño in southwestern corner of the country, was a special festival attraction. Long one of Latin music's leading keyboardists, he spent decades in the U.S. and is fondly recalled for his key role in the making of The Other Road, the revered 1973 Fania Records album by conga maestro Ray Barretto that is widely considered to be one of the most influential Latin jazz albums of all time. The diminutive and gentlemanly Martinez led his trio through a set of originals and standards that underscored his penchant for sophisticated improvisation and deftly constructed harmonies. Special guest Richie Flores, one of the A-list conga players on the scene today who had recently relocated from New York to Colombia, added tipico rhythmic intensity to the set.

The crossover appeal of vintage salsa music was further explored in a concert billed as "The Legends of Salsa," headlined by two storied soneros who made their names during the peak of the salsa dura (hard salsa) days of the 1970s, Ismael Miranda and Adalberto Santiago. They were backed by Puerto Rican pianist and arranger José Lugo and his popular salsa band, fortified by trombonists Kahn and Jorge and spotlighting such guest soloists as Beavers and Puerto Rican trumpet legend, Luis "Perico" Ortiz, who also conducted clinics for local musicians at the Universidad de Atlántico's Conservatory of Music as part of the festival's education outreach program.

Rounding out the Barranquijazz programming were no-charge, open air public concerts billed as "Jazz a la Calle" (Jazz in the Street), presented in the plaza adjoining the city's Museo del Caribe, a state-of-the-art museum dedicated to preserving local history and cultural traditions. Among groups presented were ensembles dedicated to strengthening the connections between the improvisation of jazz and folkloric traditions that abound in Colombia and integrating a variety of indigenous woodwind and percussion instruments into the arrangements.

Lasting memories are many, but the appearance by De Souza and his Brazilian group (Hamleto Stamato, piano; Glauco Solter, bass; Erivelton Silva, drums; and guitarist Sandro Haick) cast an enduring spell. Whether playing a jazz standard like Freddie Hubbard's "Up Jumped Spring" or navigating the well-known bossa nova landscape of such standards as Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Ela é Carioca," Baden Powell's "Deixa," and "Ceu é Mar" by Johnny Alf, the quintet's members beamed with unrepressed joy at being on the stage with the iconic trombonist and being able to bring a free-wheeling approach to vivacious interpretations of these classics. And, De Souza demonstrated that his musicianship is not limited to the just the slide and valve trombones; he was featured on alto sax on several tunes, displaying an impressive command of the reed instrument via a sassy tone and confident improvisations.

And, credit is due to the festival's organizers for being confident enough in their programming philosophy to carry out a trombone-centric theme, including lengthy articles the magazine size program about the history of the instrument in Latin music. It makes one wonder what in the world will they come up with for next season's landmark 20th edition of Barranquijazz. Whatever decisions are made, it's a sure bet that it will, again, result in something memorable.

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