Buenos Aires Jazz Festival 2009: Growing Into a Tradition

R.J. DeLuke By

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Buenos Aires International Jazz Festival '09, Part 1
December 3-8, 2009
In the land of the tango, Argentina—specifically the stylish city of Buenos Aires—there 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-influenced—swing to bebop—to 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 weather—summertime in Buenos Aires—certainly 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.



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