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Cool nights, hot music at Jazz al Parque, Bogotá

Mark Holston By

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The two-day series of performances featured crowd-pleasing styles from throughout the broad panorama of jazz-related genres, from jazz fusion and swing to mainstream and avant-garde forays.
Country Club Park Jazz al Parque Bogotá
Bogotá, Colombia
September 22-23, 2018

As outdoor concerts go, the scene couldn't be any more welcoming than the former country club and polo grounds that serve as home base for Bogotá, Colombia's annual Jazz al Parque. Bordered on two sides by upscale condominiums, the venue lies in the shadow of a nearby range of the Andes. The meticulously-manicured grounds skirt the vintage horse stables that recall the site's earlier role as a gathering place for wealthy polo aficionados. Now used on a regular basis as a site for large scale concerts, the stage has been retrofit into an enormous, open-sided barn once used to train polo ponies. Several thousand music fanatics can squeeze into the covered space to get closer to the performers. Other attendees elect to bask on the turf or lounge in improvised hammocks, their view of the performing artists limited to concert images displayed on a mega-size TV screen. Because this metropolis of over 10 million is situated on a broad plateau at almost 9,000 feet above sea level, temperatures plunge when the sun goes down, and experienced concert-goers come prepared, wearing layers of sweaters, parkas and mufflers. A nip or two of Colombia's famed aguardiente—high octane firewater—is the way some fight-off the evening chill, but Jazz al Parque sees to it that not so much as a drop of any kind of alcoholic beverage makes it into this family-friendly venue. Upon arrival, male and female fans are segregated for pat-downs by police officers and a close inspection of backpacks and purses.

The two-day series of performances featured crowd-pleasing styles from throughout the broad panorama of jazz-related genres, from jazz fusion and swing to mainstream and avant-garde forays. Not that many years ago, U.S.-based musicians would have dominated the programming of many Latin American jazz festivals. Today, however, a profusion of regional and national talent has shifted the spotlight more to artists largely unfamiliar to North American observers. Thanks to constantly improving jazz education opportunities in such major cities as Bogotá and the lure of traveling to the U.S. to enroll in jazz programs at Berklee, New England Conservatory and other elite schools, many Latin American nations how boast large numbers of jazz talents. This year, the sole U.S. presence among the festival's 15 performances was jazz and blues vocalist Rene Marie and her long-serving trio—pianist John Chin, drummer Quentin Baxter and upright bassist Elias Bailey.

The festival paid homage to the history of women in jazz and projected mini-profiles on big screen monitors of such diverse artists as vocalist Bessie Smith and trombonist Melba Liston to bassist Esperanza Spalding and pianist Diana Krall. The festival's programming also focused on notable female talent. In addition to Marie, the line-up included Cuban vocal dynamo Daymé Arocena, Canadian woodwind artist Jane Bunnett and her all female Cuban ensemble Maqueque, and Esther Rojas, a Colombian composer, arranger, conductor, educator, bassist and Berklee product who led the Big Band Bogotá through a high energy set of rhythmically-challenging original works.

Stylistic outliers were Itapoá, a Medellín (Colombia's second largest city) based ensemble recreating tuneful hits by such Brazilian artists as Jorge Ben and Djavan, and The Swinging Brothers, a group from Barcelona, Spain that performed to perfection a mixture of early swing and Gypsy jazz classics. Featuring two guitars and a vocalist front man who also played trumpet, the band energized a contingent of local jitterbug groupies who carved out a space near the stage and danced euphorically through the 45-minute set.

Fusion-oriented performances by the Santiago Sandoval Quintet and the La Solidad quintet featured the standard sax and electric guitar frontline. The latter group was notable for the presence of Sebastián López, a Chilean saxophonist who has found a home in Colombia and most recently has conducted Bogotá's youth big band.

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