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Barranquijazz Festival 2016

Mark Holston By

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Barranquijazz Festival
Barranquilla, Colombia
September 14-18, 2016

The success of the annual Barranquijazz Festival is a tribute to its founders—all of whom are still deeply involved as the event enters its 21st year—and their vision of what and how to present to a growing community of jazz enthusiasts in Barranquilla, Colombia's fourth largest city. Samuel Minski, a successful publisher, Antonio Caballero, a radio personality, and Mingo de la Cruz, a veteran Avianca Airlines pilot, have carefully cultivated a masterful programming formula. And it works to perfection. Virtually always on the schedule of concerts are one or two iconic jazz celebrities from the U.S., an equally notable Brazilian artist, a sprinkling of national and foreign groups that offer a broad range of styles, and a hefty dose of renowned Latin jazz and Afro-Cuban ensembles. And, as the organizers love to proclaim, "mucha salsa!"

The recently-concluded landmark 20th edition of Barranquijazz outdid itself in terms of booking an eclectic and star-laden lineup of talent. Headliners included saxophonist Benny Golson, trombonist Steve Turre, Spanish vocalist Buika, Brazilian bossa nova pioneer Roberto Menescal with vocalist Cris Delanno, Italian trumpeter Fabrizio Bosso, Brazilian percussionist Airto Moreira, pianist Hector Martignon, and a trio of legendary salsa vocalists—Ray de la Paz, José Alberto "El Canario," and Issac Delgado—as well as emerging Cuban vocalist Daymé Arocena, among many others.

The opening night, staged in the Teatro Universitario José Consuegra Higgins on the campus of the Simón Bolívar University, featured two of the festival's major revelations; Josean Jacobo & Tumbao, a quintet from Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, and a group anchored by Martignon, guitarist Greg Diamond and Turre.

The opening set by Tumbao delighted the audience with a fresh and invigorating spin on Afro-Caribbean styles interpreted with an improvisational spirit in mind. One needed look no further than the broad, magnetic smile leader and keyboardist Josean Jacobo sported throughout the performance to sense that something special was taking place. The group's sound is deceptively simple, relying mostly on polyrhythmic grooves and a torrent of vamps from Jacobo. But that's just a starting point. Both Jacobo and percussionist Edgar Molina employed a variety of native folkloric rhythm instruments to sketch the cadence of performances that ranged far beyond the customary merengue to such lesser known idioms as mangulina, pambiche, gagá, pri-pri and other folkloric styles, some reflecting Haitian influences. Trap drummer Otoniel Nicolas, upright bassist Daroll Mendez and tenor saxophonist Ronald Agustín Feliz rounded out the combo, responding to the leader's fluctuating whims, which at times reflect the kind of minimalist aesthetic perfected by Cuban keyboardist Omar Sosa. The group's forthcoming release, Balsié, features such fare as "Navegando con el Viento" (Sailing with the Wind). The arrangement emphasizes the blend of swirling rhythmic intensity and enigmatic melodies that characterize Tumbao's sound. The Latin jazz genre, once built exclusively on Afro-Cuban rhythms, today has exploded in dozens of new and tantalizing directions, with Tumbao among the most compelling of the new generation of Latin jazz explorers.

Second up was the high octane, all-star unit fronted by Martignon, Diamond, and Turre. Keyboardist, composer and arranger Martignon, a longtime resident of New York City known for the breadth of his stylistic interests, and Diamond, a New Yorker whose mother is a native of Colombia, were an ideal pairing. Both relish harmonically-challenging arrangements and odd meters mixed with adroitly selected Latin American rhythmic shadings. Both also excel in post-fusion, avant-garde Latin jazz, funk, post-bop and ballad modes. Martignon's enticing "Gabriela," a ballad with the earmarks of a standard, was an evening highlight. When Turre came onboard, his extroverted trombone style entranced the audience, as did his requisite blowing on his ever-expanding collection of conch shells. Turre demonstrated his sensitive side with a lovely, soulful reading of Duke Ellington's "In a Sentimental Mood." Throughout the set, the meaty tumbaos (Latin bass lines) and dexterous timekeeping of double bassist Edward Pérez, a Texas native who is a regular member of Martignon's New York group, provided a solid rhythmic underpinning.

The final three evenings of premier concerts were staged in the cavernous Salón Jumbo of the local country club. Drawing well-heeled members of the city's upper class, the scene, with waiters in white shirts and bowties scurrying about delivering bottles of Buchanan's Scotch, a favorite local libation, seemed drawn from a vintage film set in some mythical South American locale.

Before taking to the stage for his much-anticipated set, octogenarian hard bop tenor saxophonist Benny Golson spent several hours conducting a workshop for music students at the Universidade del Norte. Golson answered questions about how he composed such hits as "Along Came Betty" and delighted the young musicians with his stories about playing with many of the most important jazz figures of the 1950s and '60s. His recurring encouragement to the students was to find their own path and not try to emulate the style of a jazz master. Finally, admitting that he knew little of Colombian music, the students quickly organized an ensemble to perform a jazzy version of a famous, decades-old cumbia, "La Piragua." "Now I understand," Golson said graciously, complementing the fledgling musicians for their efforts.

For his set, the saxophonist was backed by a particularly notable rhythm section—pianist Mike LeDonne, bassist Buster Williams and Carl Allen on drums. They breezed through Golson's hits, including "Whisper Not" and "Killer Joe," as well as John Coltrane's "Mr. P.C." and, in the hands of the trio alone, Cedar Walton's "Holy Land." Throughout the evening, Golson impressed with his virile playing and still-keen improvisational skills as well as his knack for adding colorful narration to provide insights about the songs and his long career on the music's front lines.

Following Golson was a collective of equally legendary musicians under the banner of the LA Latin Jazz Masters: bassist Abraham Laboriel, percussionists Airto Moreira and Pete Escovedo, and Colombia-born woodwind artist Justo Almario. Airto, although noted for his mastery of Brazilian idioms, is also well acquainted with tropical Latin styles, and knew just where to add a dash of percussive hot sauce to enliven works by Almario and standard Latin jazz fare. When he was showcased, he picked one of his better known pieces, "Parana" (co-written with Uruguayan pianist Hugo Fattoruoso). Inspired by Airto's home state in Brazil's European south, he delivered it with his volcanic vocal style and slashing percussion. The dapper, silver-haired Escovedo, one of the last surviving members of his generation of Latin jazz giants, moved confidently between conga drums and timbales, tapping the perfect beat. Almario, outfitted in white linen tropical garb, seemed energized by being back on his native soil and generated some of the festival's most hard-hitting solos, particularly on tenor sax. Migrating into the realm of national styles, he played flute and shouted "cumbia, cumbia, cumbia" to tap the emotions of his Colombian audience.

Night three kicked off with accomplished and dashing Italian trumpeter Fabrizio Bosso and an organ trio comprised of his countrymen. Known for delving into many styles, from Italy's spin on updated Brazilian samba-jazz to balladry and bebop, Bosso surprised some by exploring a vintage American genre, including such tunes as "When The Saints Go Marching In," "Down by the Riverside" and "Wade in the Water." With the funky vibe of the organ-led trio, Bosso masterfully reinterpreted these classics, injecting a contemporary vitality into their tired bones.

One of the festival's most anticipated moments was when charismatic Spanish vocalist Biuka sauntered onto the Salón Jumbo stage, backed by a 12-member group. Known for her wildly evocative style, Buika has been compared to such stylistically-extroverted vocalists as La Lupe and Flora Purim. A strong undercurrent of nuevo flamenco and reggae highlighted the arrangements while the singer's paring of her vocal lines with a trombonist provided a captivating synthesis of timbres. A commanding presence on stage, Buika treated the audience to a sexy version of "Piensa en mi," a 1940s era bolero hit by Mexican composer Agustín Lara. A special guest, Cuban singer Francisco Céspedes, provoked a joyful response when he crooned the 1970s R&B hit "You Are So Beautiful."

The final night of formal concerts led off with Brazil's famed bossa nova composer and guitarist, Roberto Menescal. The backing trio was made up of some of his country's most sought after rhythm players—pianist Adriano Souza, bassist Adriano Giffoni, and drummer João Cortez. An added attraction was vocalist Cris Delanno, a frequent Menescal collaborator and one of Brazil's most consistently satisfying female singers. Menescal, an affable presence seated on a stool and hunched over his guitar, spoke in softly-voiced Portuguese, introducing such self-penned hits as "O Barquinho" (Little Boat), a bossa hit from the early 1960s, "Bye Brasil," from the soundtrack of the film of the same name, "Rio," "Você" (You), "Telefone" and other singular creations. Menescal has always had a knack for writing instantly likeable, melodically-catchy tunes that never fail to sound fresh, and he proved again this night in a survey of some of his best known repertoire. Veering briefly from the 79-year old musician's extensive songbook produced an unexpected highlight—Delanno's riveting and deeply touching interpretation in English of Sting's haunting ballad "Roxanne."

The nightcap concert featured Cuban singer Issac Delgado and his salsa orchestra and two special guests—Dominican sonero (salsa vocalist) José Alberto "El Canario," and New York City's Ray de la Paz, a lead vocalist most recently associated with the Spanish Harlem Orchestra. The energy of the band, with two trombones, two trumpets, one woodwind player, two male coro (chorus) singers and a full Cuban-style rhythm section, was simply incendiary. Delgado, with his smooth, sultry vocal style, was an audience favorite, while El Canario brought his own brand of high voltage singing and canary-like whistling to the stage. It was De la Paz, the quintessential old school sonero, who was particularly impressive, commanding the stage with his elegant, energized presence while focusing on several mega-hits from the late 1980s that were generated by the album Otra Noche Caliente.

The country club presentations were just part of what the festival offered the public. On two nights, the locals had free access to concerts featuring some of the same groups that performed in the theater venues. Among those who commanded special attention was Havana-born Daymé Arocena, an emerging queen of the contemporary Afro-Cuban music scene and a guest artist on Canadian saxophonist and flautist Jane Bunnett's new release Oddara, which features the all-female Cuban group Maqueque.
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