Buenos Aires International Jazz Festival '09, Part 1 December 3-8, 2009
In the land of the tango, Argentinaspecifically the stylish city of Buenos Airesthere is a movement afoot to bring great jazz to the land, expand the audience for the music, and increase public exposure for the growing number of outstanding jazz musicians in that South American country.
That movement is the driving force behind the Buenos Aires International Jazz Festival, whose second edition took place in December 2009. Artistic director Adrian Iaies plans to make it an annual event, a tradition. The Buenos Aires Jazz.09 Festival Internacional he put together was bigger and maybe bolder than that of the inaugural year of 2008. It showcased a number of superb South American groups and musicians, as well as artists from Spain, France and the United States. Styles of music ranged from heavily American-influencedswing to bebopto music with touches of tango, to free-from avant-garde. Listeners were as apt to hear the music of Thelonious Monk,Charles Mingus or Herbie Hancock as original music, though there was plenty of the latter.
American pianist Fred Hersch was the headliner, performing with his trio (Matt Penman on bass and Nasheet Waits on drums), as well giving a solo recital and playing another concert with his trio augmented by local musicians.
The event was a success, well attended in its club and theater venues, as well as at its outdoor concerts on the terrace of the city's Cultural Center in the barrio of Recoleta. The outdoor performances were free of charge, allowing access to the music for many residents and tourists who may have been unaware of the festival, in the area instead to enjoy the beautiful park and museums, or the basic grandeur of the neighborhood, or perhaps visiting the famous Recoleta Cemetery (a maze of amazing mausoleums that includes the resting place of Evita Peron). The crowds on the terrace were good and very receptive. Notably, a great many were of the younger set, digging the music no matter what the genre and soaking up the great vibes.
"The main point is that we are trying to start with the tradition," says Iaies, himself one of the great musical resources of the city and a three-time Latin Grammy nominee as a pianist and composer. "Put down the roots of a tradition of the festival, not only programming concert after concert." He adds, "We must support the musicians ... to stimulate (the jazz scene) and make it different (for musicians) from the regular gigs and playing standards."
Iaies is a man of passion, joyous in spirit. To converse with the director during the festival at any of the nine venues is to expect he will have to break away at various points to greet musicians and industry people who seek a bit of his time. Each is welcomed graciously and warmly. He's involved. He's committed, and backed up fervently by his ever-busy, yet always accommodating artistic producer Daniel Arano.
"Buenos Aires has a jazz festival and must have a jazz festival," says Iaies. "It is a must." He notes that the city has always been a desirable place for concerts by heavy hitters like Herbie Hancock, Oscar Peterson, Dave Holland and many others. But Argentinians who attend those concerts don't necessarily know much about who is playing great jazz in their own backyard. His trio opened for Ron Carter twice, but Iaies says more people know him from those gigs than from his stellar work in Buenos Aires and elsewhere. He hopes the Buenos Aires festival starts to change situations like that.
"Argentinean jazz has no problem," says Iaies. "The artistic quality is high. We have musicians put into a position to play with Fred Hersch or Ben Monder or Steve Cardenas," the latter two being the other American musicians who performed at the 2009 festival. But local musicians "don't have the international experience to play other countries. I hope if I link them with other musicians at the festival, the international experience will help them... increase the possibility of crossing over (to international opportunities)."
Hersch formally opened the festivities December 3 with a concert by his trio. The event was sold out, attended by not only fans, but many of the musicians who would be playing in the ensuing days. Buenos Aires Minister of Culture Hernan Lombardi also made an appearance. Hersch is one of the more renowned pianists in jazz and his sophistication and intensity as an artist made an impression. Earlier in the day, he conducted a master class at Teatro Presidente Alvear, where he spoke to students not about chord progressions and notes, but about ways to free themselves up, approach music in different and fresh ways, to avoid stiffness and open up avenues for creating in the moment.
In concert, the trio performed in typical fine fashion. Waits, who has been with Hersch for a handful of years now, laid down a funky beat using mallets that opened "I Wish I Knew," the pianist floating in and around the rhythm; cool and bouncy. Ornette Coleman's "Forerunner" was a perfect example of the interplay of the trio, each instrument adding its voice, but with no real major solo during the nimble and spirited rendition. Waits was fast and fleet, but also lyrical. Penman's bass spoke in shorts bursts that propelled the tune and Hersch decorated the melody. It was three thinking musicians, aware of where the others were, making their own statements, but fitting them appropriately in the musical conversation.
"Still Here," written for Wayne Shorter, and Monk's "Bemsha Swing" were other highlights. Warming up for the main event was the Hernan Merlo XL9tet, led by bassist Merlo. The band was tight and particularly interesting were arrangements of two Mingus classics, "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" and "Fables of Faubus," the latter with bold horn solos over the raucous melody, then a free-form section in which each horn weaved contrapuntal lines to good effect.
At his solo concert a few days later, Hersch compensated for not having his rhythm mates by becoming his own with different voicings and a more active left hand. His trio had performed his own "Twirl" composition a couple nights earlier. In the solo version, he was more intricate and expressive, using swirling patterns with right hand over a repeated left-handed rhythm to evoke the motions of a ballerina, which inspired the tune. He blended ballads with standards like "Blue Monk" and obscure tunes like Billy Strayhorn's "Upper Manhattan Medical Group." He even reach back to Fats Waller's "Crazy About My Baby." He injected each with ingenuity and a dash of daring, all to the crowd's delight.
The success of the Hersch concerts, says Iaies, helps the festival for the ensuing years. Efforts soon begin for the next edition, and seeing the attendance numbers, universally good reviews and the overall buzz created by the headliner puts a stamp of success on the festival that sponsors, including the government of Buenos Aires, want to see.
The headliner set the bar high, but the festival maintained its high caliber right through to the final concert by the Orchestra National de Jazz from France on December 8. Like most large-city festivals, it's impossible to catch all the music, but there was enough music to satisfy those who took the time to investigate.
At the outdoor terrace venue, a sculpture of legendary tango composer Astor Piazzolla sits behind the crowd, facing the stage as if overseeing each performance. Piazzolla, who inflected his works with jazz and classical influences, and whose music has influenced many jazz musicians, would have liked what he saw. (His grandson, Daniel "Pipi" Piazzolla, was the drummer on that stage in a group led by Guillermo Klein). The universally gorgeous weathersummertime in Buenos Airescertainly helped make each of the five nights, during which 18 bands were presented, delightful. Each of the five theaters that hosted events were attractive and comfortable and the club settings that hosted concerts and jam sessions were accommodating and conducive to first-rate listening experiences.
A smattering of highlights:
The diversity was impressive. Trumpeter Mariano Loiacono played the best hard bop of the festival, burning in a style out of Clifford Brown, with a burnished tone and remarkable speed and dexterity. He had melodic invention as well as chops, and ideas flowed freely from his horn. Loiacono has a bright tone and good articulation on ballads as well, and saxophonist Ramiero Flores (who studied at the Berklee School of Music student with Joe Lovano, among others) was a good foil, playing with fire and finesse. Pianist Hernan Jacinto knows the bebop language and executes it in fine fashion, backed by solid rhythms from drummer Oscar Giunta. Most of the music was original. The band cooked. Loiacono, a dynamic player, needs to be heard more up north.
The trio of Norberto Machline, Alejandro Herrera and Luis Ceravolo also played straight-ahead jazz, but in a funkier style. Pianist Machline was thoughtful and soulful during Hancock's "Cantaloupe Island," evoking Horace Silver's style. Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Chega de Saudade" was outstanding, taken at a fast tempo, each solo kicking ass. Machline was sublime on "You Don't Know What Love Is," with nice alternate harmonies, along with beautifully placed single-note runs. Bassist Herrera, who would appear with other groups during the festival, showed monster chops on electric and acoustic axes. His rapid runs were clean and strong, his solos resourceful and expressive, particularly on electric bass. An outstanding player.
Another bassist, Guillermo Vadala, led a fusion group that was captivating. He's a musician of high repute in Argentina and played strong lead lines in an easy-flowing, melodic style that had just enough technique and brought the funk without being too boisterous. Guitarist Baltasar Comotto soared over the locked-in grooves with a strong, blazing quality that was well-suited to the music. Javier Lozano gave the music a rich foundation on electric keyboards and his solo statements were funky and fleet, matching well with Vadala's melodicism. The compositions were accessible and catchy; good stuff that had the crowd roaring its approval.
At the other end of the musical spectrum was the free-form openness of Pepi Taveira's band. Taveira has a resume that includes playing with the likes of Clark Terry and Danilo Pérez. The music was wild, but held enough of a thread for listeners to follow. It was visual as well, with Laura Zapetta dancing to each tune with a combination of tango, ballet, free-form, sexy moves that fluctuated according to the music. She contributed primal screams, sounding like a soprano sax reaching for the limit on one avant-garde piece. On another, she belted out a blues in more traditional style. Taveira, an honors Berklee graduate years ago, is highly regarded and his band brought an edgy excitement to the proceedings.
Pianist Guillermo Klein made some noise in the United States, where he lived for a time, in recent years. He brought a find band to the outdoor site that features not only jazz, but influences of his native Buenos Aires. Sergio Poli is a violinist who has an ebullient style and good feel for swing. His group, which included the fine bassist Herrera, went through jazz standards like Charlie Parker's "Scrapple from the Apple," Isham Jones' "There is No Greater Love" and Sonny Rollins' "Oleo." On Bird's "Scrapple," Poli was fast and furious, swinging like mad. and Herrera's solo was crisp and facile. Poli can flat-out play.
Oscar Feldman is an Argentine who has international experience with the likes of Jeff "Tain" Watts, Paquito D'Rivera and Al Di Meola, and his sax work reflected influences of the American greats, including hints of Stan Getz, that find its origins in Lester Young. Yet there were elements of Bird as well. Again, Hernan Jacinto provided energetic piano and Oscar Giunta pounded out steady rhythms. Bassist Jeronimo Carmona (who could be found in many groups throughout the festival), was outstanding as well, with a remarkable sound and strong chops. He's a sought-after player in South America and it's easy to see why. He's an excellent musician. The band was in a good groove throughout. Feldman showed great empathy on ballads as well as burners, getting into the song and telling a story of substance, without rushing.
Another bassist, Mariano Otero, led an outstanding nonet playing swinging modern music with engaging arrangements. He has studied bass with the likes of Scott Colley and Drew Gress and is a prominent musician. The band is hot, locking into great grooves with sweet soloists, among them Flores on sax and Juan Cruz de Urqueza on trumpet. One of the few large orchestras was that of Arturo Schneider, who, at the age of 80, has performed with a who's who of musicians in South America, as well as with people like Johnny Mandel, Henry Mancini, Lalo Schifrin and Burt Bacharach. His band played forceful charts with grace and ease, each punctuated with good solos.
From Uruguay, guitarist Nico Mora, bassist Andres Ibarburu and drummer Gustavo "Cheche" Etchenique performed like a power trio of sorts, improvising over fusion motifs much of the time. Mora proved to be an appealing player, tossing out interesting, angular lines over the driving rhythms. Contracuarteto from Chile, a pianoless group with two saxophones, explored a variety of styles from bop to softer themes that contained influences of indigenous music. The musicians were versatile enough to cover all these bases in fine fashion.
The Small Jazz band played old-style jazz harkening back to tunes like "Save That Tiger" and "Won't You Come Home Bill Bailey." Though the music was ancient, it was expertly rendered and had the audience dancing on the outdoor terrace to the Dixieland style. In contrast to that brash energy was the mellow duet of veteran trumpeter Roberto "Fats" Fernandez and pianist Pablo Raposo. Fats plays with a big tone and improvised largely on the melody of songs including "My Favorite Things" and "My Foolish Heart"mostly ballads and medium tempi. "Cherokee" was the most daring, taken at a faster pace. Fernandez also scatted nicely during sections of some of the old chestnuts in a pleasing style that was fun to hear.
The festival also featured some fine singers. Sofia Rei Koutsovitis has been making big waves outside of South America of late, having collaborated with musicians like John Zorn, Bobby McFerrin, Maria Schneider, Geoffrey Keezer and John Scofield. Her set was exciting, her style covering elements from jazz to South American folkloric to pop and then some. She improvises with a strong, flexible, beautiful voice that plays with the melody and harmony. Bassist Ezequiel Dutil laid down robust, funky grooves that were decorated by voice, percussion and soprano sax. Some of this world music brought to mind the Joe Zawinul Syndicate.
The youthful Barbie Martinez sings standardsincluding offbeat numbers like Wardell Grey/Jon Hendricks/Annie Ross's "Twisted" and Bobby Timmons/Hendrick's "Dat Dere"in English with a sumptuous, soft voice that can belt out more boisterously when the song calls for it. She has great phrasing and a very appealing style that can go over very well in the United States should the opportunity arise. Delvina Oliver has a nice soprano voice and mellow delivery and also sings standards in English. Her version of Miles Davis/Bill Evans' "Blue in Green," from Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, is poignant and sublime. Spanish star Carme Carmela was one of the featured international concerts. She sings with great emotion and expression well-suited to the jazz genre, though not everything she does is straight jazz.
Argentine Roxana Amed is a delight, with a rich voice that has both great flexibility and emotion. She conducted some master classes on singing during the festival. (Classes were also led by Hersch, Waits, Penman and Cardenas during the festival). But she was not part of the 2009 concert schedule. She did, however, appear at one of the jam sessions led by trumpeter Gillespi, where she did a killer version of Monk's "Ask Me Now," backed only by festival director Iaies on piano. She has a great way of playing with the melody, using her voice like an instrument. She and Iaies both have great fervor in their performance and the duet was exquisite. Overall, Amed can be just as likely to sing a Joni Mitchell song, an original composition, jazz or popall with equal joy and excitement.
Jam sessions with trumpeter Gillespi and amigos were held on four nights at La Trastienda Club near the city's Plaza de Mayo. Various combinations of musicians who appeared elsewhere during the festival worked out on jazz standards both straight-ahead and fusion. It didn't always work to perfection, but was a good opportunity for the musicians to stretch out and commune with their colleagues, and was fun for the audiences who wanted to devour more music late into the night. There were plenty of fiery solos being dispersed.
A rich tapestry of music was presented during the six-day run, with an emphasis on displaying a variety of styles. In the notes for the festival's outstanding 92-page program, Mauricio Macri, head of government for the city, says the aim was to present "a high-quality program in clubs, theaters and open air venues throughout the length and breadth of Buenos Aires, in order to appeal to as many different audiences as possible: the knowledgeable, the neophytes, the curious, residents of the city, tourists, and people from Argentina and the world." That aim was more than likely created by Iaies, it nonetheless it was well carried out.
A big part of both the '08 and '09 versions editions included special works commissioned by the festival. In 2009, Fernando Tarres, Ernesto Jodos, Diego Schissi and the Tango Jazz Club were called upon. Tarres, noted pianist, wrote a tribute to the great Piazzolla. Jodos, also a venerable pianist in Argentina, had a group performing music honoring Gato Barbieri and Schissi wrote pieces for jazz and dance that featured ballerinas on stage moving to the music. The Tango Jazz Club, a trio that has been combining both genres in their music, also came up with original compositions for the festival.
If that isn't enough, an outstanding film series was featured at the Cultural Center, including Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer, the renowned Calle 54, and The Jazz Baroness, a documentary on Pannonica de Koenigswarter, the noted member of the prominent Rothschild family who was a huge jazz fan and friend and benefactor to artists like Monk, Bird and others.
Referring back to program notes, Iaies says of jazz music: "Tradition and avant-garde are but two photographs of the same landscape, taken from a different angle. They need and nurture each other. They are not mutually exclusive. We are confident that musicians and audience see it that way. That is how we see it, hence our commitment to designing a wide-ranging, well-balanced program. We are working to strengthen the enormous pedagogic potential of the festival, the communication aimed at gaining more followers into the genre and the promotion of artistic partnerships and gatherings between artists of different backgrounds, as well as to encourage the creation of music by means of commissions. Our eagerness can be summarized in two, almost dogmatic, lines: to take risks and to register works. To blur the artistic boundaries and to leave an imprint. The festival should drive the Argentine jazz community into taking a step further. This is the only way tradition can be built. To return to the previous analogy, we expect that the fan, once unfolded, will never fold up again but, on the contrary, will transmit its expansive, refreshing impulses to all of us lovers of the most vigorous and revolutionary music genre left by the twentieth century."
So the landscape of Buenos Aires Jazz.09 Festival Internacional was a broad one. Hopefully, it advanced its noble goals, exposing the superb talents of so many worthy musicians to thousands of music fans. Many cities across the world have jazz festivals. The one created in Buenos Aires is in its infancy, but the its organizers have a grand design to see it grow and develop a tradition of its own. They also a singular passion for the music and the people who play it that, with any luck, can be a springboard to success.
For those who have always wanted to see the city of Buenos Aires in the summertime and like music, what could be a better enticement?
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