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Ecuador Jazz 2016

Mark Holston By

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The event brings to Quito an energetic and multicolored presentation of global jazz, contemporary jazz overflowing with ethnic and ancestral sounds, electronic jazz, and jazz of all times.
Ecuador Jazz 2016
Quito, Ecuador
February 10-21, 2016

When jazz cognoscente discuss their favorite festival destinations, it's understandable if Quito, Ecuador is seldom, if ever, mentioned. Geographically isolated in the mountainous reaches of South America's second smallest Spanish- speaking nation, this hilly, equator-hugging capital city of some two million souls is surrounded by volcanos that pierce the horizon at 19,000 feet above sea level. On its winding, pedestrian-packed avenues, native women in bowler hats and colorful scarves sell everything from soup to cigarettes. In Quito's many parks, an impromptu volleyball game or a minstrel with a song to sing will quickly draw a crowd of the curious. It is a city that proudly projects its Andean and Spanish colonial heritage at virtually every turn. But a mecca of jazz?

The answer, somewhat surprisingly, is an emphatic "yes." For 12 years, Quito has hosted Ecuador Jazz, an ambitious and expansive festival that offers a line-up of domestic and international talent that's wildly eclectic as well as master classes, films with music-related themes, and a series of discussions and presentations by invited scholars and journalists. For 11 days and nights, there are few stylistic bases that aren't touched, explored and celebrated. The Sucre National Theater Foundation, the festival's organizer, sums up the artistic vision at play, stating that the event brings to Quito "an energetic and multicolored presentation of global jazz, contemporary jazz overflowing with ethnic and ancestral sounds, electronic jazz and jazz of all times." Thanks to the passionate and informed leadership of Chía Patiño, the theater's director, and production manager Fabiola Pazmiño, the annual festival has become one of the most distinctive events of its kind in the region.

I had the opportunity to sample virtually all of the festival's presentations and found much to savor regardless of the venue or genre.

Day one began with the screening of the film Finding Fela, a 2014 documentary by U.S. director Alex Gibney about the life and times of the Nigerian pop music superstar. Among other films presented at later dates was Let's Get Lost, director Bruce Weber's gritty 1988 black and white survey of trumpeter Chet Baker's artistic triumphs and troubled personal life.

The second day's schedule began with an 11 a.m. master class on the modern, impressive campus of the Universidad de las Américas, a private university with a substantial music program designed to accommodate students on jazz, classical and popular music tracks. The NY Gypsy All-Stars, featuring keyboardist Jason Lindner and four well-traveled musicians from the eastern Mediterranean region who specialize in Balkan-rooted styles, delighted the overflow audience of musicians and students. Lindner mentioned his fondness for analogue keyboard instruments, including the classic Fender Rhodes and various synthesizers, citing the warmth of their sound.

Bassist Panagiotis Andreou, speaking commendable Spanish, handled the translation chores, explaining the use of microtonal scales and how clarinetist Ismail Lumanovski bends notes to match the tones of the kanun, a traditional folkloric string instrument of the region. The band demonstrated 11-8 and other uncommon time signatures. One on tune, the group segued from a Macedonian groove into an Afro-Cuban stance behind Lindner's montuno and bassist Andreau appropriating a fragment of the Celia Cruz salsa hit, "La Vida es un Carnaval." The session concluded with another statement about the natural ebb and flow of styles with kanun artist Tamer Pinarbasi plucking out a funky, blues-style vamp.

That evening, the historic national opera house, Teatro Nacional Sucre, presented the first of six evenings of concerts at this gilded showcase. Inaugurated in 1886, this French-style neoclassical opera house is one of the oldest such theaters in Latin America. It proved to be an elegant and acoustically perfect venue for a dozen festival concerts.

Yurgaki, a trio of bass, drums and keyboards featuring two Colombian musicians and one from Ecuador, complemented its basic line-up with a guest tenor saxophonist and lead guitarist. The group fused rock and jazz-fusion influences to regional folkloric styles, occasionally achieving an organic blend of disparate idioms.

Moroccan vocalist and string player Hassan Hakmoun followed, stirring up a frenzy of North African-centric sounds leavened with myriad global influences. Three percussionists, keyboard, bass and trap drums rounded out the ensemble, which featured traditional string instruments and chanting. Trance-inducing, repetitive rhythms were layered over Hassan's animated vocals. The enthusiastically-received set concluded with a demonstration of the universality of indigenous rhythmic styles, smoothly transitioning from a North African vibe into a Brazilian samba, with percussionists rapping out a traditional batucada groove right from a Rio favela.

The evening concerts on day three commenced with the opening act, Trivial, an Ecuadorian quartet featuring trap drums, keys, bass, guitar and vocals. With random hints of funk and jazz fusion, the group stayed close to its natural orientation—a grinding variant of heavy metal with thrashing, chest-pounding rhythms. The group revealed a softer side on a slow-paced rock ballad sung in both English and Spanish. One arrangement featured a turntable guest artist who traded fours with Spanish keyboardist Marcos Merino.

With less than two weeks in his new post, U.S. ambassador to Ecuador, Todd C. Chapman, accompanied by his wife Janetta and a small security detail, scored points with the cultural community by attending the Teatro Sucre concert featuring and the U.S.-based NY Gypsy All-Stars. The dexterity and golden sonic ambiance of kanun player Tamer Pinarbasi seduced the audience. The group demonstrated its stylistic versatility, ranging from driving, rock rhythm- buoyed arrangements to strongly Balkan-shaded performances. Clarinetist Ismail Lumanovski crafted gorgeous balladry while keyboardist Lindner provided spacey, synth-generated gurgles and pops and fat chords from his Fender Rhodes.

The following day, a Saturday, brought the festival's evening twin bill concerts to the new, state-of-the-art Teatro Mexico, a sleek space located in the ferrocarril neighborhood, so named because of the nearby presence of the city's historic train station.

The opening act set a high bar of excellence that, unfortunately, the following, headline group failed to match. Havana, Cuba native and multi-instrumentalist and singer Yusa a delivered a masterful performance that created a buzz among festival patrons that lasted for days. The charismatic musician and her Argentine bassist and drummer performed a stylistically diverse set that ranged from boleros, traditional Cuban music and an updated, crowd-pleasing cha-cha-cha to Brazilian bossa, MPB (Musica Popular Brasileira) flavored works and jazzy funk. Yusa's brief turn at the piano, accompanying her husky, sensuous vocals with ravishing pianistics, recalled the sound of Brazil's Tania Maria. The charming Cubana demonstrated equally impressive facility on electric and acoustic guitars, the small Cuban tres, and electric bass, which was played with the kind of ferocious attack that wouldn't have been out of place in a heavy metal setting. Totally captivated, the audience roared its approval.

Club d'Elf, a U.S.-based sextet specializing in a rhythmically-aggressive and electronically- enhanced update of traditional North African genres, provided a stark contrast. Although led by bassist and sintir player Mike Rivard, much of the focus was on Morocco native Brahim Fribgane, who proved to be an inventive soloist on the oud (a North African string instrument). Oddly, when he switched to various traditional hand drums and a cajón, he was sadly under-mic'd, resulting in a flurry of arm and hand movements but little sound. A turntable artist generated a ceaseless burst of delayed, robotic vocal clips and myriad spacey snaps, crackles and pops. Keyboardist Paul Schultheis also added to the aural hurricane, roaming between a grand piano, Hammond B3, Fender Rhodes, various synthesizers, and a melodica. The result, largely based on simple two bar repetitive phrases, added up to an endless, often chaotic and consciously psychedelic jam that provoked a constant stream of theater patrons scurrying to the exits. Many in the audience that remained seemed to drift away. The young couple in front of me retreated to their smart phone. I peeked; they were viewing video highlights of the NBA All-Star weekend in Toronto. The group seemed better suited to a chic dance club setting in some trendy, jet-set locale, where the nouveau riche could gyrate the night away while sipping premium vodka.

The festival returned to Teatro Nacional Sucre the next evening for a warmly received set by a national group, the Donald Régnier Octuor. Guitarist Régnier, a native of France who has lived in Ecuador for years, assembled a group of uncommon instrumentation to sketch his compositions and arrangements. Three female vocalists, who mostly used vocalese and scatting techniques, fronted an ensemble that included marimba, trap drums, double bass, cello and the leader's classical guitar. Performing only three works, the ensemble projected a pleasing mix of virtuosity, sophistication and improvisational sensibilities. The overall vibe was reminiscent of the kind of elaborate, jazz-influenced popular music that began to emerge in Brazil in the late 1960s via such artists as Egberto Gismonti, Toninho Horta, Wagner Tiso, and Arthur Verocai and vocal groups like Quarteto em Cy and Boca Livre. The overall impression was one of gently scripted, elegantly interpreted music unencumbered by fixed stylistic preconceptions.

The night's headliner, Brazilian vocal stylist Luciana Souza and her handpicked backing quartet, proved to be the perfect complement to Régnier's octet. Featured on her current album, Speaking in Tongues, the band includes such notables as guitarist Lionel Loueke and drummer Kendrick Scott. Souza spoke fluent Spanish, mixing some of her native Portuguese and flawless English into her commentary. A master of vocalese, she utilized a wide range of styles as the group performed a charming and rhythmically vivacious set that included a number of Brazilian standards. A surprising inclusion was "As Rosas Não Falam," an exquisite ballad from the 1940s by composer Cartola noted for its heart-wrenching lyrics. In a more up-tempo mode, the group covered guitarist Toninho Horta's high-flying, samba-shaded masterpiece known in the U.S. as "Distant Horizon"—a melodic and harmonic structure perfectly suited to showcase Souza's scatting talents. Swiss harmonica player Gregoire Maret added his spicy, buoyant improvisations throughout the set, underscoring the longstanding association of the instrument with Brazilian jazz and popular music. Antonio Carlos Jobim was recalled; Souza and the group put a new twist on the classic "Corcovado," deconstructing both the familiar form and rhythm and coming at the beloved and often- performed melody from a fresh, out-leaning perspective. The set was the definition of adventure-laden virtuosity.

Four days later, the evening concert schedule resumed with the Zulu Kings Band. A solemn drum cadence announced the arrival of this Ecuador-based sextet on the Teatro Nacional Sucre stage for an evening that celebrated the roots of North American jazz traditions. A reverential reading the gospel "Just a Closer Walk with Thee," was led by group chieftain, trumpeter and vocalist Walt Szymanski. The band quickly shifted gears and moved from the New Orleans of yore to the style most associated with the cradle of jazz today—Second Line funk. Billing itself as "Ecuador's only authentic Second Line Brass Band," a unique distinction if there ever were one, the unit quickly got the SRO audience's juices flowing, performing tunes by Trombone Shorty, the leader and others. Szymanski, in halting but highly intelligible Spanish, joked that his native city, Detroit, is far more dangerous than Quito, brushing off any suggestion that walking the streets of Ecuador's capital city exposes one to any serious level of risk.

The band's rhythm section included a snare drummer, bass drum and tuba. In the front line, tenor saxophonist Mike Blanchard, another Detroiter, authored a searing attack salted with a hefty dose of vintage rock and roll-style, growling "Yakety Sax" blowing. The leader's trumpet provided a sharp contract; Szymanski is a skilled soloist who taps a deep resource of bebop vocabulary. Trombonist David Nenger, an elemental soloist, actually adhered to a more stylistically-grounded sound. The Kings provoked mass hysteria when Szymanski tossed dozens of strings of beads, a staple symbol of Mardi Gras, into the delirious crowd. For a warm-up performance, it was quite a show.

Vocalist Catherine Russell and her trio were next up, and built on the audience enthusiasm the Zulu Kings had so effectively sparked. The charismatic singer is the daughter of Trad Jazz legend Luis Russell, the native of Panama who migrated to the U.S. in 1919 and went on to fruitful associations as a pianist and arranger with Louis Armstrong, King Oliver and other notables. After opening with a tasty reading of "Them There Eyes," an evergreen composed in 1930 and made famous by Billie Holiday, Russell told the audience that she focuses on songs written from the 1920s to the '40s, with an occasional detour into the '50s for a classic R&B ballad. Performing several songs from her current album, Bring it Back, she coursed dramatically but warmly through a set that included works by Cole Porter ("I've Got You Under My Skin"), Hoagy Charmichel ("New Orleans"), Armstrong ("Lucille") and Sheldon Brooks ("Darktown Strutter's Ball"). Whether belting out a raucous '50s era bluesy R&B smoker or caressing the poetic lyrics of a standard from the Great American Songbook, Russell demonstrated total command of her stylistically vast repertoire.

Russell's backing group was exceptional. Guitarist and music director Matt Munisteri provided expertly crafted, steely solos that amplified the essence of classic swing. Pianist Mark Shane proved to be the consummate accompanist, providing precisely-rendered, period-perfect solos which seldom exceeded eight bars. Bassist Tal Ronen likewise zeroed in on the relaxed groove so important for this genre. Russell's banter delighted the audience, which responded emotionally to the singer's dusky voice and emotional delivery. She was rewarded by one of the festival's few standing ovations. For this observer, experiencing her lush interpretation of Irving Berlin's "Cheek to Cheek" was an ultimate festival reward.

Jam sessions were featured nightly at the nearby Teatro Variedades. At this session, virtually all of the young musicians who lined up for their turn on stage were saxophonists. The high quality of the local instrumentalists was affirmed when several charged adroitly through the changes of Charlie Parker's "Au Privave,"

More mainstream jazz was on the menu the following evening when the Ecuador-based Paul Sánchez Quintet scored an impressive artistic triumph in its appearance before a full house. Their sizzling performance quickly dispelled any doubts about whether exceptional jazz musicians exist in this small South American nation. The trumpeter and composer and his musicians all boast impressive histories of formal education—Berklee College and other prestigious institutions in the U.S. and elsewhere —and diverse playing experiences abroad. The group's short set, highlighted by a focus on hard bop stylings, was loaded with clever breaks and riffs. Along the way, Sánchez and his men detoured into warmly-voiced balladry and more rhythmically pungent material which tapped the influences of regional idioms.

From top to bottom, the band is loaded with talent. Drummer Raul Molina was explosive when he needed to be, relaxed and subtle when a lighter hand was called for. Pianist Marcos Merino, a perceptive accompanist, impressed with his crisp articulations and powerful yet elegant soloing. Guitarist Ramiro Olaciregui and upright bassist Matias Alvear both radiated equal amounts of confidence and chops. The soft-spoken leader displayed his flawless technique on both trumpet and flugelhorn, recalling the svelte, buttery tone of Art Farmer one moment, the fire and expressiveness of Woody Shaw and Freddie Hubbard the next. What a shame the group doesn't yet have a recording for its growing public.

Brazilian vocalist and guitarist Rosa Passos, no stranger to Ecuadorian audiences, was in the nightcap slot with her acoustic quartet. The diminutive singer rewarded the SRO audience with a broad cross section of Brazilian fare, extending from the expected Antonio Carlos Jobim tune ("Voce Vai Ver") and a cherished bossa nova classic ("O Pato," an early hit for Passos' major influence, Joao Gilberto) to more pop-oriented works by Djavan and Roberto Carlos. Particularly pleasing were two songs by the under-recognized 1950s era pianist and composer Johnny Alf—"Eu e a Brisa" and "Ilusão à Toa." On the latter, clarinetist Ivan Medeiros Sacerdote delivered an enchantingly beautiful and technically daunting solo. Later, he told me that he wasn't happy with the sound he produced, explaining that his reeds suffered in their transition from the highly humid environment of his home in the port city of Salvador, Bahia to Quito's arid climate and high elevation of over 9,000 above sea level. No one except the artist, striving for absolute perfection, could have noticed.

Passos has perfected Gilberto's trademark understatement and a whispery, sometimes barely audible vocal delivery. She literally caresses the lyrics and gently kisses them. Passos ventured out of that quiet zone for a more exuberant reading on two songs associated with the late Elis Regina, widely regarded as Brazil's best female vocalist ever. The set was constructed to focus on various rhythm section members and combinations. Passos paired herself in duo settings with both pianist Fabio Torres, leader of the well-known São Paulo-based Trio Corrente, and bassist Paulo Paulelli, another Corrente member, who layered a variety of vocal effects over his bass lines. The singer also played guitar and, much to the joy of the Spanish-speaking audience, interpreted the immortal bolero "Besame Mucho" in a highly personal, heartfelt vocal solo. Entranced concert-goers reveled in the moment, producing a rare moment when one could literally have heard a pin drop.

The following evening, Ensamble Jazz Andino, a quartet, demonstrated the potential of fusing modern jazz precepts with indigenous styles of the region. The original compositions looped along in stately, relaxed tempos, suggesting the kind of folkloric group one might encounter in a distant mountain valley. The key ingredient proved to be woodwind player Tomas Corvalan, who alternated between alto sax and quena, the wood flute that's essential to recreating authentic Andean music. The wistful, whistling quality of the wind instrument projected an arresting mood.

The festival's closing act in the historic Teatro Nacional Sucre featured soul singer Lee Fields and his seven-piece band, The Expressions. Channeling the gritty essence of James Brown and other soul and R&B legends of the 1960s and '70s, Fields quickly got the audience on its feet, waving and swaying throughout the fast-paced, tightly programmed and wildly successful set. After days of seeing scruffy young musicians on local stages adorned with jeans, plaid shirts and athletic shoes, Fields and company provided a reminder of what classy showmanship is all about. The musicians, all well-groomed, were outfitted in dark, well-tailored suits. They bobbed and weaved in well-choreographed steps. The trumpet and tenor front line, backed by a Hammond B3 organ, were particularly impressive, effortlessly nailing one punchy background phrase after another. Fields proved that classic soul, served up hot and sassy, can still be a force on today's pop music scene.

The festival's closing day was a six hour-long feast of disparate styles performed on an open air stage in Quito's Plaza del Teatro. With free and unrestricted admission, the finale is the festival's gift to the city, and the public responded passionately, filling the historic square with hundreds of keyed-up music lovers. A view of the packed plaza from a balcony of the Café del Teatro revealed a sea of Panama hats and a hula hoop or two. Surprisingly, unlike other festivals in the region, what was missing was the sight of thirsty fans slurping down cups of beer; in Ecuador, the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages in public spaces on Sundays is prohibited.

Ecuador Escuentro Jazz, a trio of local musicians fortified by two guests, a female vocalist and a saxophonist, provided another insight into the development of national jazz talent. Covering songs by Chick Corea, among other fusion-era composers, the group provided polished contemporary jazz stylings that got the growing crowd into the mood for what was to follow.

Next up was Ecuador's Orquesta de Instrumentos Andinos, an esteemed ensemble that boasts a history of 25 years. It quickly affirmed its status as one of the festival's most distinctive acts. Conducted by resident Japanese violinist Tadashi Maeda, the orchestra's 50-plus musicians performed a North American jazz-focused repertoire on folkloric instruments common throughout the Andean region —charangos (Andean guitars) and quenas and zamponas (Andean wind instruments). Duke Ellington was celebrated as the group performed "Sophisticated Lady," "It Don't Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing," and "Satin Doll." Louis Armstrong's "What A Wonderful World," performed with vocal accompaniment, was an audience favorite. Particularly impressive was the orchestra's arrangement of Joaquin Rodrigo's "Concierto de Aranjuez." The steely string work and restful panpipe sonorities transmitted a magical spirit.

Malian keyboardist Cheik Tidiane Seck and his group ramped up the energy several notches with more vamp and percussion-driven Afro-fusion. Group frontman and vocalist Kabinet Kouyate exhorted the packed plaza crowd to chime in with phonetically-interpreted vocal lines.

The festival's closing group, Paito y Los Gaiteros Punta Brava, a five-member folkloric ensemble from neighboring Colombia, put the accent back on hallowed, roots-based music documented on the group's current album Gaita Negra. Led by 76-year old gaita (a wind instrument, up to almost three feet long, made of cane) maestro Sixto "Paito" Silgado, the conjunto is dedicated to the preservation of an almost extinct genre of ceremonial, folkloric music that originated among Afro-Colombian enclaves along the country's Caribbean coast. Churning tambora (hand drum) rhythms and clusters of throaty gaita notes made for an intoxicating aural brew that moved the hip-swaying crowd, many wearing festive Colombian sombreros.

A hallmark of the festival's formula for success is bring together stylistically-diverse musicians and encouraging cross-genre collaborations. That was colorfully demonstrated late one night at the portico of the Colón Hilton Hotel where several members of Los Gaiteros and Cheik Tidiane Seck's band shared information on intricate rhythms via smart phone video clips. At midnight, they would be off to a private recording studio to co-mingle their styles, improvising and freely exploring each-other's traditions while bridging rhythmic idioms separated by a vast ocean and centuries of locally-nurtured evolution. It was a perfect footnote to a unique festival that delivers the goods on many levels.

Author's note: While at the festival, I was honored to be asked to present an overview of my research on the history of jazz in Latin America—Circulación del jazz en Latinoamérica.

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