Festival International de Jazz de Port-au-Prince, 2017 - Part 1

Mark Sullivan By

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After a few minutes the rain let up, so Haitian-American vocalist Sarah Elizabeth Charles took the stage, joined by guest trumpeter Christian Scott. She opened unaccompanied, a haunting vocalise augmented by live electronics. Her eclectic approach continued after the band entered, including a Haitian folk tune (her father was originally from Port-au-Prince) "Wangolo Wale," and a reggae tune. After "Face of Fun" (the title tune from her forthcoming album) she began "Amarita," a politically-charged song setting words by poet Maya Angelou. But the downpour resumed to such an extent that the set had to be cut short. The weather was so inclement that headliner Panamanian pianist Danilo Pérez was unable to take the stage. Fortunately there was an After Hours session, so he and his band were able to play a short set in a more intimate setting, with Pérez playing an electronic keyboard in place of his usual grand piano. They began with "Elegant Dance," continuing with other selections from his "Suite for the Americas." Not really a substitute for a full set, but much better than a complete cancellation.

Sunday evening's concert began with German pianist Sebastian Schunke and his Berlin Quartet (bassist Marcel Krömker, drummer Diego Pinera, and saxophonist Danielle Freeman). The set opened rather abstractly, with Freeman really wailing on soprano saxophone. There was a montuno pattern, but the music took place at an intersection between Latin and modern jazz—a lengthy piano/drum duet closed the tune out with a sustained energy blast. Other material moved into a more mainstream Latin groove. "Ella" from his latest album Genesis, Mystery And Magic (Nwog Records, 2014) is about his young daughter, who he described as "wired." "Oma Mutti" came from Back In New York (Connector Records, 2008), an album featuring the great Paquito d'Rivera on clarinet which Schunke described as "a dream come true." The group's set on Monday was similar, but demonstrated the flexibility in the arrangements. A fascinating take on Latin jazz, incorporating generous amounts of modern jazz style.

Haitian-American singer Vanessa Jacquemin has a style with many elements. The strongest is the samba that comes from her years in Brazil (there's even a Brazilian percussionist in her band), followed by the Parisian jazz scene. French guitarist Alex Jacquemin was the linchpin of the group, a fusion guitarist with tremendous chops. Completely supportive most of the time, but capable of taking the spotlight when required. The first appearance of pop music in the festival—albeit with a jazz flavor—with more to come.

Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba made his first Haitian appearance with his Volcan Trio (electric bassist Armando Gola and drummer Horatio "El Negro" Hernandez). It was a bravura performance in every sense. Rubalcaba is a virtuoso, and his group is more than capable of keeping up with him every step of the way. Which is not to say that it was all about flashy technical display. He paused to play an elegant Cuban danzón, which is a slow, formal partner dance. And the band revisited his original "La Nueva Cubana" from the repertoire of Projecto, his first band. A rousing conclusion to the second night of the festival.

Interlude 1: Musée du Panthéon National Haïtien, Musée du Bureau National d'Ethnologie, Hotel Oloffson

The National Museum is a remarkable place, full of historical objects and art that tell the story of the country going back to before independence. There's even one of the Goodwill Moon rocks, presented to the country by U.S. President Richard Nixon after the Apollo 11 mission. But perhaps the most striking exhibit is the one devoted to Haiti's many Presidents—ranging from President for Life to several who were only in power for a few months. It's a completely unvarnished view of Haiti's often turbulent political history—warts and all.

Across the street, the Museum of Ethnology celebrates Haiti's vernacular traditions, especially vodou. Drums and altars used in vodou ceremonies are on display, as well as Carnival costumes. The day's tour concluded at the famous Hotel Oloffson, known for being the setting of Graham Greene's novel The Comedians. A wonderful bit of history, apparently unaffected by the earthquake.

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