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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.

The next night, a Friday, I opted to sample the talents of four Argentine groups, presented at the open air Anfiteatro del Parque Centenario. The park, in the city's attractive Caballito neighborhood, hosts a variety of attractions including the acoustically-superb amphitheater, with room for a thousand or more fans.

The opening Les Amis Cuarteto, led by flutist Walter Carluccio, played a polished, sophisticated brand of chamber jazz influenced as much by baroque shadings as by the precise formality of the Modern Jazz Quartet, Dave Brubeck and Brazilian ensembles of a like mind. The quartet supplied the ideal aural backdrop to a fresh spring evening in the city.

Rouge a Tempo, a trio of female vocalists backed by a small ensemble, followed, evoking the classy ambiance of a cabaret during the peak of the swing era. Their wide-ranging repertoire included coy, period-perfect readings of such classics as "Rum and Coca Cola," "Oh, Johnny, Oh," "St. James Infirmary," and "Sway" (Que Sera) and earned hearty applause.

Pianist Leonel Duck's trio was next to present a tightly-packed 45-minute set. An audience favorite, Duck generated a percussive, McCoy Tyner-rooted keyboard personality. With the drums and bass providing a driving, often-rock-oriented rhythmic foundation, Duck created moods that ranged from dark and brooding to upbeat and buoyant.

The final act at the park was vocalist Verónica Sala and her Quintet. Strongly influenced by Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and other '50s era vocal stylists, Sala offered warm and expressive readings of tunes like "Slow Boat to China," "Mean to Me," and "I Didn't Know What Time it Was," offering ample solo space to guitarist Santiago Deluca and tenor saxophonist Santiago de Francisco—two impressive young improvisers.

Saturday brought a downpour and some flooding to the greater metropolitan region, bringing into doubt whether the outdoor concerts at the Parque Centenario amphitheater, my first choice that day, would be a go. The back-up plan was a late evening set at The Bebop Club, a new, basement level venue not far from Argentina's Presidential Palace and other historic sites in the city's Montserrat district. A cozy and well-appointed room with a red and black color scheme, the club wouldn't be out of place in any major city. One of the festival's innovative programming strategies is to feature visiting jazz artists with local talent in a club setting. Called "Cruces" (Crossings), the bill for that evening at Bebop featured the well-traveled, versatile New York City-based alto saxophonist Andrew D'Angelo. Noted as a soloist and associated professionally with the likes of the Either/Orchestra and drummer Matt Wilson, D'Angelo brought his Big Apple swagger and penchant for free playing to the club. After an exhausting set, he told the audience that he wanted to talk to them about his brain surgery (the musician made a miraculous comeback after having been given a dire prognosis and undergoing surgery to remove part of his brain). "Play, play," shouted a patron in the front row, just feet from and saxophonist. "Don't push me, buddy," he responded. "I've been working since 10 this morning (D'Angelo was tasked with rehearsing the Manuel de Falla conservatory student big band), and I want to take a breather and talk about my f***ing brain operation!" And, so, he did.

Sunday's offerings presented the customary daily dilemma—what to choose? Being a fan of Uruguayan percussionist and vocalist Ruben Rada since he released two albums in the U.S. with the Montevideo-based fusion group Opa, I began the evening with his set at Usina del Arte. The gregarious 73-year old musician, backed by a three-man horn section and full rhythm team, proved once again why his sound continues to appeal to a wide audience. Elements of Latin folk rhythms, R&B, funk and jazz fusion come together joyfully in Rada's creations—as if the combined talents of Earth, Wind and Fire, Lonnie Liston Smith and the Cosmic Echoes, Weather Report, and Azymuth had magically fused. At a Rada performance, it's a given that most of the audience will be on its feet, grooving to his infectious arrangements. A robust English reading of "Georgia on my Mind" demonstrated the tireless Uruguayan musician's versatility.

Then it was off to the cultural center's chamber space to catch a quintet from Santiago, Chile led by bassist Roberto C. Lecaros. With two compelling horn soloists—Cristian Gallardo on alto and flute and trumpeter Sebastián Jordán—the ensemble tackled Lecaros' complex, free-leaning arrangements with confidence, excelling on such works as "En Los Andes," one of several compositions the bassist used to explore the southern Andean region's indigenous rhythmic motifs.

Next, a hurried taxi-ride across the city to a government cultural center in the Boedo neighborhood to sample a performance by vocalist and percussionist Ibrahim Ferrer, Jr. and his Afro-Cuban quintet. The son of the famed Cuban vocalist of Buena Vista Social Club fame who passed away in 2005, the junior Ferrer belted out classic tropical fare to the delight of an audience that was split between dancing couples and gleeful listeners. Flutist Soledad Montes de Oca provided the típico woodwind accents that insured the conjunto's made-in-Havana sound.

The final stop on this whirlwind evening was another "Cruces" club date, this time at Café Vinilo in the city's chic Palermo district. The cavernous, somewhat non-descript space featured a sextet fronted by saxophonists Ben Van Den Dungen, a veteran jazzman from Holland, and Fito Nicolau of Argentina, backed by a Polish drummer and bassist and Tomás Fraga, whose album Influencias I had just named as my album of the year for the annual JAZZIZ Magazine critics' poll. The two saxophonists engaged in a classic cutting session, working off a set list of jazz standards. While the Dutchman displayed greater technical skills, the much younger Nicolau possessed a hearty tone and hard bop-influenced attack that provided an interesting contrast. As for Fraga, the 27-year old guitarist proved why he is attracting so much attention, with an abundance of chops and an intellectual approach that combined jagged rhythms with dexterous single-note runs and volleys of thick chords.

The closing night, scheduled on a Monday due to a local holiday on that date, brought regrets that I had not been able to able to see such truly remarkable players as drummer Pipi Piazzolla (yes, the great composer and bandoneonista's grandson), saxophonist Luis Nacht, trumpeter Mariano Loiácono, and pianists Alejandro Kalinoski, Ernesto Jodos, and Adrián Iaies, who serves as the festival's artistic director, among others. The evening's programming, however, held great promise.

Melissa Aldana, the much heralded young Chilean tenor saxophonist and composer, fronted her trio—fellow Chileno Pablo Menares on bass and drummer Craig Weinrib—in one of the festival's most anticipated performances. Aldana, who boasts a muscular tone and confident attack, uses space wisely to create tension and a sense of anticipation. While at times she seems to be consciously tentative, her performance was viewed by the avant-garde-loving Argentine audience as solid evidence of her steady maturity as a soloist.

Shifting to the Sala de Cámara (chamber music space), I was fortunate to be present for one of the festival's most artistically substantial and memorable performances—pianist Greg Burk and his Expanding Trio. Based in Italy for many years, Burk has devoted himself to mastering an incredibly diverse range of styles. Deeply involved in the bebop and free jazz movements for years, he eventually tired of both and evolved to the melting pot of improvisational impulses he, bassist Stefano Senni and drummer Enzo Carpentieri crafted for the Buenos Aires audience—an ingenious blending of both genres with the pronounced stylistic accents of other movements. Burk's cleanly articulated comping and Carpentieri's low key rhythm work grounded the performances in a well-defined structure while all three were free to veer off into their own orbit. The results were fresh and riveting, full of subtle inflections and genuine surprises—a kind of stylistic template for a highly intellectual brand of improvisation that places equal value on structure while giving free range to the spur-of-the-moment whims of all three musicians.

The festival's closing concert featured Brazilian guitarist and composer Guinga (Carlos Althier de Sousa Lemos Escobar) and Portuguese vocalist Maria João. Despite my love of the Brazilian vibe, I took a pass on what I'm sure was a sensational performance, not wanting to dilute magic Burk and his rhythm section had created. I exited Usina del Arte, the still-vivid essence of the Expanding Trio's enchanting performance providing my own personal soundtrack as I walked off into the balmy Buenos Aires night.

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