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Buenos Aires Jazz Festival 2016

Mark Holston By

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The six day festival presented a bewildering number of daily options, including 66 performances staged in 15 venues spread throughout this vast metropolis, making it difficult to attend more than two or three performances a day.
Buenos Aires International Jazz Festival
Buenos Aires, Argentina
November 23-28, 2016

The Buenos Aires International Jazz Festival is slowly but steadily becoming one of the elite events of its kind. The recently-concluded 16th edition of the annual series of concerts, clinics and films was more stylistically-expansive than in past years. The six day run of daily presentations in venues ranging from concert halls to neighborhood cultural centers and jazz clubs provided opportunities—many without charge—to experience everything from trad and Dixie to swing, bebop, chamber jazz and avant-garde stylings—a particular favorite of local audiences.

"This was easily the best festival so far," commented noted jazz aficionado Guillermo Hernandez, owner of Minton's, a jazz CD and LP shop that has become a mecca for the city's jazz cognoscente. "And the reason is simple: it was the variety. There was something for everyone." The festival presented a bewildering number of daily options, including 66 performances staged in 15 venues spread throughout this vast metropolis, making it difficult to attend more than two or three performances a day. One notable trend this year: the festival doubled its booking of overseas groups from 11 in 2015 to 22 for its 2016 schedule.

The opening concert, presented in Usina del Arte, a former power generating plant in the La Boca neighborhood that's been transformed into a world class cultural center, featured The Cookers. This well-known ensemble from the U.S. provided plenty of star power and delighted the SRO audience with its potent a potent mix of soloists that included drummer Billy Hart, bassist Cecil McBee, trumpeter David Weiss and saxophonists Donald Harrison and Billy Harper. Pianist Stanley Cowell replaced the unit's regular keyboardist, George Cables, missing due to health reasons. The unit's second trumpet voice, Eddie Henderson, was also absent, related to a health issue. "What you heard," commented Hart as we shared a ride the next day, "wasn't The Cookers at full strength. We miss those two guys."

The audience, nonetheless, was overjoyed with what they heard. Cowell in the fill-in role, was particularly impressive, displaying a sensitive touch that was in contrast to the more driving, extroverted stylings of the other soloists. Harper, a hard bop player with a soulful side, and Harrison, whose alto is always on fire, erupting a non-stop flurry of peppery notes, provided a nice balance of approaches. Bassist McBee's contributions extended well beyond his solid bass work—his attractive compositions, including the blues-based "Slippin' 'n Slidin'" and "Close to You Alone," a fetching ballad, formed the bulk of the group's repertoire.

The following day, Hart was featured in a clinic conducted in Usina del Arte's chamber music space. He expressed surprise at the presence of a drum set, commenting that he usually just talks. "Play, Billy, play," a fan shouted from the audience, prompting the drummer to ask how many of those in attendance had been at The Cookers' concert the preceding night. When only a few hands went up, Hart gently chastised the audience, reminding them that the concert would have been the time and place to see him play. But, after answering predictable questions about playing with Miles Davis, Hart sat on the drummer's throne and demonstrated how he has incorporated a rhythm from the African nation of Togo he picked up from some folk musicians from that land at a festival in Europe. "You never know when you'll stumble on something that you can use to add something different to your style," he told the crowd of mostly young drummers.

That evening, my concerts of choice were two avant-garde ensembles at the Usina del Arte auditorium—the festival's primary concert hall. Tamarindo—featuring tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby, bassist William Parker and drummer JT Bates—opened the double bill with a blast of searing, post-bop style free jazz indebted to the guiding spirit of such masters of the genre as John Coltrane and Archie Shepp. The North Americans were followed by a duo featuring Argentine saxophonist Pablo Ledesma and Spanish pianist Agustí Fernández. The pair played give-and-take, with Fernández occasionally digging into the guts of the grand piano to pluck strings and create eerie tonalities while Ledesma explored the full range of his soprano, launching one wildly careening arpeggio after another. Given their thirst for avant-garde playing, the Argentine audience was more than impressed by the evening's fury-laced fare.

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