Buenos Aires Jazz.15 International Festival

Mark Holston By

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The six-day extravaganza featured 70 concerts staged in six venues sprinkled throughout this expansive metropolis and included appearances by 26 ensembles from abroad and 44 domestic groups.
Buenos Aires Jazz.15 International Festival
Buenos Aires, Argentina
November 10-15, 2015

Imagine opening the pages of a major daily newspaper, turning to the Op-Ed section and seeing, prominently placed amidst the usual commentaries on politics and international crises, a tome to the recently deceased jazz singer and composer Mark Murphy. Sound like an impossible dream? Not, it turns out, in Argentina, where an elevated appreciation for the arts and the contributions of artists to society have long been a part of the national psyche. The short opinion piece by Guadalupe Raventos, published in Clarín, one of the country's major daily newspapers, celebrated Murphy's ability to "move us with his songs."

Given that such an organic understanding of the importance of the arts is well established in Argentine culture, it's understandable that the artistic director of the Buenos Aires Jazz International Festival chose to cast the ninth edition of the undertaking in equally inclusive terms. "The festival has played an active and vital role in the development of an increasingly heterogeneous Argentine jazz," commented Adrián Iaies, the respected pianist and composer who has been at the helm of the annual event since its inception eight years ago. "This is not an abstract idea but a political concept," he added pointedly. "The festival is every one of us."

The six-day extravaganza featured 70 concerts staged in six venues sprinkled throughout this expansive metropolis and included appearances by 26 ensembles from abroad and 44 domestic groups. Thirteen master classes and workshops and a "film and jazz" series built around the screening of movies and documentaries related to the jazz culture augmented the live shows. Most of the performances were offered to the public free of charge on a first come, first serve basis. Even concerts that required a ticket were reasonably priced; the best seats in the Teatro Colón, the city's fabled opera house, for a performance by the Branford Marsalis Quartet, were a mere $25. As the last notes of an outdoor big band faded into the moonlit night at the outdoor amphitheater at Parque Centenario, festival organizers proudly announced that a cumulative audience of 90,000 had been served.

With so many tempting options at hand, choosing which event to attend proved to be an ongoing dilemma. And there was more than just the choice of music to take into account; visiting different venues also provided an opportunity to explore culturally and architecturally distinctive Buenos Aires neighborhoods, from La Boca, the rough-around-the-edges port district that was home to thousands of arriving Italian immigrants a century ago to Once, site of the city's historic Jewish enclave. For those drawn to a small club setting, night-capping sessions were on tap at two of the city's best jazz clubs, Café Vinilo and Thelonious Club.

The opening night's sole offering was a set by guitarist Peter Bernstein, one of the festival's international headliners, and a New York City-based rhythm section of pianist Sullivan Fortner, drummer Billy Drummond and Peter Washington on bass. The concert set the tone for much of what would follow in five event-packed days—well-produced performances attended by sophisticated fans and staged in truly stunning surroundings.

Bernstein's date, and most of the high profile concerts that were to follow, was staged in the city's newest cultural center, Usina del Arte, literally the "Art Power Plant." Located in La Boca, the former electricity-generating plant, constructed in 1916 but renovated and converted three years ago into a state-of-the-art center for visual and performing arts, boasts a fanciful façade that's reminiscent of a 19th Century Italian monastery. An exhibit of 1940s era Italian culture, including a video loop of Benito Mussolini ranting at a Rome rally, was featured concurrent with jazz festival events.

As Bernstein and his quartet quickly discovered, the facility's contemporary, industrial-style design is pretty to the eye but can be acoustically challenging, thanks to a preponderance of hardwood surfaces and metal trim. At its best, the 800 seat space renders an overly bright, often brittle sound. Opening the set with Thelonious Monk's "We See," it took the engineer a while to zero in on a workable balance, with better definition of the bass. Thereafter it was smooth sailing.

My seatmates were Julia Sanjurjo, a young vocalist who later in the week would sing "You Stepped Out of a Dream" and "Darn That Dream" at the "New Voices of Jazz" concert featuring four of Argentina's emerging female jazz vocal talent, and Sebastian Loiácono, an up-and-coming tenor saxophonist who is featured on his older, trumpet-playing brother Mariano's new hard bop album, Black Soul. Like other members of the audience, these two newly-minted members of Argentina's ever expanding community of jazz practitioners hung on every note, listening with serene attention to these internationally-known stars, studying their technique and admiring the quartet's high level of intuitive communication and stylistic expertise.

Bernstein is an affable presence onstage. Often sporting a half-smile, he delighting in his quartet's chemistry on such works as Cole Porter's "I Love You," which featured an exquisite Washington bass solo, and "Dragonfly," a Bernstein original with a catchy jazz fusion mode that allowed the guitarist to display the breadth of his stylistic range. The quartet put a convincing stamp of originality on such standards as "Yesterday" and "Everything I Have Is Yours." A particular treat was the leader's original based on the changes of "Tea For Two" and rendered, odd meter style, in 5/4. Drummond, however, overpowered many of the performances with relentless and overly showy stick work, retreating, oddly, to more subdued timekeeping only during his own long solo outings.

Pianist Fortner emerged as a crowd-pleaser, flashing a broad grin when Bernstein signaled it was time for him to solo. The following day, the young musician was featured in one of the festival's many workshops and had an opportunity to explore his fascination with the early, stride-rooted piano styles of Jelly Roll Morton and other pioneers. His enthusiasm and light but technically brilliant touch made such evergreens as "Dinah" and "It Had To Be You" resonate with the audience. And, he paid tribute to Louis Armstrong, saying that "Without him, none of us would be doing what we are doing today." He followed up with enticing arrangements of Bill Evans and Duke Ellington tunes, his left foot happily stomping out the time.

Every day at Buenos Aires Jazz presents the dilemma of which evening concert to attend when three or four are on tap. On this night, I had to pass, regrettably, on drummer Daniel "Pipi" Piazzolla's Trio (yes, he is the grandson of tango legend Ástor Piazzolla) and an Argentine quintet performing Latin American versions of Monk's repertoire to attend a set by a quartet comprised of one Argentine and three Brazilian musicians and billed as "The South American Reunion." Notably, the group featured bassist Sizão Machado, a celebrated jazzman who has performed and recorded with such notables as Chet Baker, Jim Hall, Elis Regina, Flora Purim and Milton Nascimento, among many others. The concert introduced the audience to music from the quartet's latest album, Sud—a stylish update on made-in-Rio-fashioned jazz, focusing on rhythmic synergy and buoyant melodies.

Argentine jazz fans who are particularly keen on avant-garde, "free" oriented artists—and there are many of them—were delighted by the appearance of Japanese pianist Satoko Fujii and her Tobira Quartet. Those enamored of plucked piano strings, eerie cymbal effects, blasts of pithy, unfocused trumpet work and other such devices found much to appreciate in this group's challenging set. Of interest was how the quartet approached the highly conceptual compositions, beginning at the outer limits of the construction and gradually bringing the piece back into the realm of a more formally structured, conventional arrangement.

On the next night's outing, I had to forsake seeing the duo of vocalist Gabriela Anders, the well-known pop tango and bossa singer and daughter of big band leader Jorge Anders, and guitarist Wayne Krantz to take in what turned out to be a true festival highlight—a stunning, full-blown recreation of Charlie Parker's "Bird With String" sessions of 1949 and 1950.

The setting for the Bird concert was itself memorable—AMIA (Argentine Israelite Mutual Association), the Jewish cultural center that was bombed, allegedly by Iranian terrorists, in 1994 at the cost of 85 lives. The center features a cozy theater that seats about 300—far too few for a concert of this importance and quality. Those who attended the gratis event queued up in the rain on the sidewalk, waiting to be processed through a perfunctory security screening that included a metal detector. On the marquee, the names of the souls who had perished in the bombing. Once inside, concert goers could take in an art exhibit addressing holocaust the Jewish diaspora themes.

The opening performance featured the duo of Turkish guitarist Serkan Yilmaz and Hikaru Iwakawa, a Japanese musician who specializes in the quena, the traditional flute of Andean indigenous cultures. Yilmaz plays a 10-string guitar in a style reminiscent of the rhythmically robust manner Brazilian multi-instrumentalist Egberto Gismonti pioneered 40 years ago. The duo's original repertoire and their improvisational prowess produced a memorable set, with airy sonic textures and rhythmically aggressiveness at the same time.

"Bird With Strings" featured alto saxophonist Carlos Michelini, a string quartet conducted by the animated Daniel Camelo, plus a traditional rhythm section, trumpet, oboe and English horn. Michelini, who captured Parker's style in both tone and technique, later posed the rhetorical question: Why recreate something so well known? "Should we stop reading Cervantes just because 'Don Quixote' was written over 400 years ago?" Point well made.

Despite some feedback woes that perplexed the sound engineer, the set left most in the audience spellbound. Although the tunes—"Just Friends," "Laura," "I'll Remember April" and other hits from the 1940s —are well known to most jazz fans, experiencing the dynamic Michelini's Parker-perfect reading, the attention to jazzy accents demonstrated by the classically-trained string players, and some fine solo work by trumpeter Guillermo Calliero all contributed to a concert that was more than merely memorable. Another set that drew strong interest featured U.S. trumpeter Jim Rotondi backed by Argentine pianist Ernesto Jodos' trio. Currently on the faculty of Graz, Austria's University for Music and Dramatic Arts, Rotondi has released 13 albums as a leader and has worked as a sideman on close to 100 sessions. He is a compelling soloist with more than a bit of Freddie Hubbard in his soul, a strong sense of swing and terrific instincts as a soloist. Although not the kind of artist who is a likely candidate to be featured at a major U.S. festival, his skillset was perfect for his visit to Buenos Aires.

Rotondi's Usina del Arte performance drew on a number of key references. He opened with "Mary Ann," a funky blues from Ray Charles' book and commented on his tenure backing the singer. On ballads like "It's Easy To Remember But So Hard To Forget," the trumpet master displayed his lyrical sensibilities, crafting elegant, probing improvisations. Rotondi was also featured as the guest soloist in the festival's closing concert at the Parque Centenario Amphitheater, fronting the Manuel de Falla Conservatory Big Band, a high energy local ensemble of college-age musicians.

Earlier in the evening, Branford Marsalis' quartet impressed the audience that packed the 2,487-seat Colón Opera House for what was billed as the festival's showcase event. The saxophonist commented that it was great to be back in Buenos Aires after over 20 years but barely uttered a word thereafter, not even to mention the titles of the tunes. Alternating between soprano and tenor, Marsalis and the group covered a lot of bases, from frenzied bebop to Nola-style funk, classic swing and even a hint of North African sonorities. One of the few songs that was widely recognized, Duke Ellington's 1930s classic, "In A Mellow Tone," elicited a particularly warm response.

With its focus on a talented pool of national musicians, European artists and a handful of well-known soloists from the U.S., Buenos Aires Jazz has created a programming formula that offers much to city residents and overseas visitors alike. And, although the city is awash in concerts by noted international artists on any given night of the week, it's an easy bet that most of those who attended the recent edition can't wait for next November to roll around.

Photo credit: Mark Holston

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