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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.

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