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Funchal Jazz Festival 2018

Ian Patterson By

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James Reese Europe was responsible for bringing jazz to Europe from Harlem…now this is a music that we gather around, much because of brave soldiers like he and Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake who orchestrated this music for army bands to play. This was a hundred years ago. —Jason Moran
Funchal Jazz Festival 2018
Santa Catarina Park
Madeira, Portugal
July 12-14, 2018

A stunning tableau greets visitors to the Funchal Jazz Festival entering by the main gate, at the top of Santa Catarina Park. The first thing that catches the eye are the spectacular trees that define the park's boundaries. African, Asian, South American and Mediterranean trees, with names as exotic as their forms, are bathed in purple and green light. The park's well-kept grass, bedecked in rows of seats, slopes gently down a hundred metres or so to the stage. Beyond the stage, stretching far into the distance, the hills of southern Madeira are aglow with the countless orange lights of villas and apartments—a striking constellation against the black backdrop. To the right, the Atlantic Ocean.

Under the directorship of Paulo Barbosa these past five years, the Funchal Jazz Festival has drawn sizeable crowds to this idyllic location. For many, sat in clusters at the back of the arena and within easy reach of the bars, the festival is a place to be seen and a place to relax with friends in the cool of the summer nights. The jazz, it seems, is background music. The majority of the twelve hundred or so attendees, however, are there year after year because of the quality of the music, which sees six double bills over three nights. Previous editions have featured heavyweights like Joe Lovano, Charles Lloyd, Bill Frisell, Kurt Elling, Christian McBride, Maria João and Mário Laginha, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Rudresh Mahanthappa and Christian McBride. The 2014 Funchal Jazz Festival featured Vijay Iyer's trio and a solo Jason Moran—both artists returning for the 2018 edition in different settings.

For an island almost equi-distant (650-ish miles) from the Portuguese mainland and Morocco, and almost 4,400 miles from east-coast USA, the program is perhaps surprisingly American jazz-centric, with just one Portuguese band appearing each year and none from other countries. That said, this is the season for North American jazz artists to pound the European jazz festival trail, so perhaps it just reflects a wider norm. Women instrumentalists, however, never mind leaders, have been absent, at least until the appearance this year of Jazzmeia Horn.

Whether all this reflects director Paulo Barbosa's personal tastes or those of the festival sponsors—or even the expectations of the Funchal public—is unclear, but complaints from the paying public, it seems, have been few and far between. American jazz artists, particularly the male variety of the species, are still the undisputed heavyweight champions of the jazz world.

Day One

Ricardo Toscano Quartet

On a bill dominated by American bands, the honor of opening Funchal Jazz Festival 2018 fell to the sole Portuguese representative—the Ricardo Toscano Quartet. From the opening, self-penned number, which bled into Herbie Hancock's "The Sorcerer," alto saxophonist Toscano served notice of his impressive, post-bop technique. Double bassist Romeu Tristão, drummer João Pereira and pianist João Pedro Coelho bristled with energy on this fiery introduction to a quartet that, despite its members being in their early twenties, has already been together for four years.

Hancock, John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Wayne Shorter—seemed to be obvious touchstones for Toscano, which took nothing away from his original compositions—elegant and impassioned in equal measure. Arguably Toscano's most personal statement, however, was a keening, Charles Lloyd-esque ballad, where the leader's soulful spirit shone, underpinned by the rhythm section's elegiac rumblings.

Toscano left plenty of space for individual solos, and although Tristão, Pereira and Coelho all had their moments, it was their collective chemistry behind the leader's searching improvisations that most impressed. Notable too, the emotional and stylistic breadth of Toscano's compositions, whose arc spanned hypnotically ruminative, abstractly meditative and sharply driving terrain. Coltrane's "The Promise" closed an engaging set on an upbeat note, although the rendition was a little too faithful to the spirit of the original to be truly memorable.

Originality, that elusive summit, is everything in music. In an interview with the eminent English jazz journalist Val Wilmer at the end of the 1960s, Ornette Coleman opined: "The Thing that makes jazz so interesting is that each man is his own academy." Toscano has one foot firmly planted in the academies of past masters, and the other, reaching for his own sound. He's impressive, no doubt, but there's the sensation that if he could only use the idioms of the past as a springboard from which to launch himself, rather than as a defining bedrock, then the flight could yet be a truly memorable one.

Jazzmeia Horn

It's no easy task for a jazz singer to excite an audience as much as say, a virtuoso saxophonist or trumpeter, but Jazzmeia Horn did just that, captivating the Funchal Jazz Festival audience with her breathless scatting and powerful delivery. The Texas-born-and-bred singer attracted awards and nominations in her teens, and now twenty seven years old, they have kept coming—with first place in both the 2013 Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition and the 2015 Thelonious Monk Institute Jazz Competition. It's gone from good to great, too, with her debut recording as leader, A Social Call (Prestige Records, 2017) garnering Horn a Grammy nomination.

The sizzling bop of Betty Carter's "Tight" threw Horn straight into the lion's den, with Géraud Portal's fast-walking bass and Henry Conerway III's lively drums providing the canvas for the singer's vocal acrobatics. Horn owes a debt to Carter, amongst others, though there was something quite personal in her horn-like scatting that conjured notions of whistling kettles and exotic bird-song. Saxophonist Marcus Miller and pianist Victor Gould added fuel to the fire with animated solos. Horn was in inspired form on a swinging version of Brooks Bowman' standard "East of the Sun (and West of the Moon)," playfully trading improvisations back and forth with Conerway III, and, on a couple of occasions holding impressively long notes whose eventual release ushered in excited applause.

A boppish rendition of Ann Ronell's "Willow Weep for Me" meant there was little letting up in tempo. Horn's frenetic scatting perhaps lacked a little finesse, though her passion never dimmed, notably in a fiery, extended rap that touched on discrimination, police brutality, national unity, the importance of education, and perhaps a tad tangentially , organic food. A call-and-response sing-along involved the audience on an energetic "Night and Day," with Miller revelling in a bustling, Charlie Parker-esque solo. Horn returned with another rap, but she was treading shallow waters rather too long, when a thunderous wave might have made for a more satisfying conclusion.

Horn placed her own stamp on Joni Mitchell's "Centerpiece"—another vibrant swinger peppered with the singer's freewheeling scatting. It was Gould's zesty piano improvisation, however, that stole that particular show. It wasn't until seventy minutes into the set that Horn brought the tempo down with Jimmy Rowles/Norma Winstone's ballad "The Peacocks (A Timeless Place)," the singer's delivery, now and again, revealing Billie Holiday's influence. Horn showed her gospel roots with a brief verse of "Lift Every Voice," a teaser for a twenty-minute version of Bobby Timmons' "Moanin"; Miller Gould and Horn cranked it up one more time, while the singer's thrilling scat channelled Dizzy Gillespie at his bebop best.

The final stretch featured another Horn rap, but as it lumbered on the steam that Horn and her band had worked so hard to build up gradually dissipated. The crowd rose to its feet and cheered for more, but the no-encore policy of the Funchal Jazz Festival—due to strict time scheduling—denied it. Horn is a precocious talent, a fearless, exhilarating improviser steeped in gospel, blues and jazz roots. Her jam-like raps, however, can overstay their welcome at times. One of the marks of the great jazz virtuosi is that, in general, they know when to let a solo go.

Besides the Music...

When it comes to festival vibes there's something about an outdoor festival on a summer night that trumps almost any indoor event. Madeira enjoys daily mean temperatures between 16 and 23 degrees Celsius year-round. Yes, the air can be sticky at times, but if you're looking for an escape from the floods, fires and life-snuffing temperatures that seem to be engulfing much of planet Earth, then Madeira is an attractive option.

What it does have, given its geography, are occasionally stormy cross-winds that can make landing at Funchal's airport complicated. With cross-winds doing their thing this year there were real concerns that the flights of a couple of bands due to land the same day of their performances would have to be cancelled. Happily, the winds spared everybody.

With concerts starting at 9.30 pm, the days are set up for exploring the city and the island's multiple urban and natural delights. Multiple companies vie to attract tourists on boat trips to go turtle, dolphin and whale spotting in the surrounding waters. The sight of a school of bottle-nose dolphins surfing the currents around you, or that of a humped-back whale breaking the surface are memories to cherish.

For those with weak sea legs the mountains offer all grades of hiking, plus flora and fauna spotting. Bus tours and cable car offer less strenuous sight-seeing alternatives. If pottering around town is your thing, then Funchal's vibrant downtown offers an abundance of cafés, restaurants and tourist shops, with wondrously mosaicked pavements to guide you.

Funchal also boasts an old quarter—complete with dark tavernas and street market stalls peddling colorful bric-a-brac—that preserves much of its bygone-age charm.

For foodies, Madeira is a gastronomic delight and seafood is a must. Coinciding with the Funchal Jazz Festival is tuna season, and you'd travel a long way before you taste better tuna steaks.

If you think that nearly everyone in the Funchal Jazz Festival audience is experiencing, to varying degrees, some of the above-mentioned pleasures, it goes a long way to explaining the good-natured, relaxed atmosphere of the festival. Any festival, after all, is just the centrepiece of a much larger setting.

Day Two

Vijay Iyer Sextet

Even by his own prolific standards Vijay Iyer has been on something of a creative roll in recent times, with five releases on ECM since 2014. Albums like the extraordinary audio-visual feast that was Radhe: Rites of Holi (2014), the intimate, trio poetry of Break Stuff (2015) and the aptly named duo outing with Wadada Leo Smith, A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke (2016), have underlined Iyer's status as one of contemporary jazz's most creative forces. At Funchal Jazz Festival 2018, Iyer presented music from Far From Over (2017) with a mouth-wateringly good sextet.

It's uncommon to open a show with a drum solo, but Jeremy Dutton's energized salvo set the tone for the exceptional drama that would unfold. His blistering attack ushered in the riffing saxophones of tenor player Mark Shim and altoist Steve Lehman, teeing up full-throttle solos from flugelhornist Graham Haynes, Lehman and then Iyer. The sextet is a larger line-up than is perhaps habitual for Iyer, but the greater sonic palette—including electronic effects—allowed plenty of creative wiggle room. As the music waxed and waned, an extended exercise in tension and release, it gradually dawned that this was not a conventional tune-applause-tune-applause gig. Instead, the music unfolded in a continuous stream of orchestral logic for the full, pulsating set.

Switching between acoustic and electric piano, Iyer steered the sextet through emotively undulating terrain. A paired back rhythm section exploration—with Stephan Crump's measured bass lines a foil to Dutton's hard-hitting polyrhythms—morphed into an electric-period Miles Davis-like segment, as Haynes and Iyer on electric piano stretched out. The fire was followed by dreamy Rhodes and bass arco soundscape, inviting lyrical intervention from Haynes on the mellower cornet and, by way of contrast, a keening solo from Lehman that held the cry of pain and protest.

There were several occasions where the music seemed to have peaked. Yet, like a long-distance runner digging deeper, Iyer's sextet kept kicking on. One riveting solo followed another, the individual virtuosity bridged by fascinating ensemble dialogues full of funk and lyricism. It was a full fifty minutes before Iyer, over a punchy unison ensemble riff, introduced the band. "Our album is called Far From Over," Iyer told the Funchal crowd. "That's because the struggle for justice is far from over." Those words will have meant different things to different people, but the words of Archie Shepp, speaking to journalist Val Wilmer in 1971, resonate nearly half a century later: "I think the question of color is the crisis of our time," Shepp stressed. "It's got to be resolved."

The sextet signed off with closing exclamations from the front line trio over a pulsating groove. The abrupt, over-the-cliff-edge ending was a suitably dramatic way to conclude a spectacular concert.

Billy Hart

One of the last of a dying breed, Billy Hart's has played with a who's who of jazz greats in a career spanning half a century. Hart's regular collaborators of recent years, pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Ben Street, were joined by saxophonist Joshua Redman —one of the most significant tenor players of the past twenty years. Iverson's understated eloquence and Redman's gutsier vocabulary provided contrasting textures, with the ever-versatile Street and Hart mixing it up with Hart paid early tribute to Hampton Hawes with the opener "Southampton," a bluesy vehicle for Redman, who soon gathered wind in his sails with a crowd-pleasing solo, bursting with R&B gusto. Iverson's response, a playful, Thelonious Monk-esque tight-rope walk, brought the quartet back to the head. "For Balkis," a homage to the daughter of Solomon and Sheeba, began with a melodic mallets intro from Hart—a percussive fanfare of sorts that paved the way for an arresting quartet dialogue. Bookended by a mellow, spacious atmosphere, Iverson's abstract piano meditations fuelled a sympathetic, though altogether livelier reply from Redman, with Hart whipping his cymbals like a jockey spurring on his steed.

On a driving post-bop burner Hart worked his cymbals continuously, feverishly at times, crashing down on his snare with explosive flurries that punctuated Redman and Iverson's improvisations. The quartet breathed more deeply on the mid-tempo, walking-bass number "Duchesse," with compelling solos from Iverson and Redman marked respectively by bluesy economy and expansive vim. On the next tune a terrific drum feature was the entrée to a bustling, emotionally-charged Redman solo, with Iverson's percussive chordal comping accentuating the atmosphere redolent of John Coltrane's classic quartet. The appropriately titled "Chamber Music" was a brief interlude of sorts, its simmering energies alternatively abstract and broodingly lyrical. This vignette was, by a stretch, the most contemporary sounding piece of the set.

With a showman's flare, Hart announced the set closer with a rattling four-minute solo that worked the skins more than the cymbals. However, much in keeping with the character of the entire set, Iverson unreeled a mazy, mid-tempo solo, followed by a searching Redman improvisation of great intensity. In the end, with the crowd on its feet, Hart acknowledge the musicians individually and addressed the audience: "Thank you for the way you've inspired us." Ditto Billy Hart, who has been inspiring musicians and audiences alike, as on this evening in Funchal, for a very long time.

Workshops/Jam Sessions

For the musicians, sharing a little of the magic is part of the Funchal Jazz Festival experience. Each of the three days the Conservatorio of the Escola das Artes was the venue for workshops and masterclasses. Jazzmeia Horn, saxophonist Francisco Andrade and guitarist André Santos all gave master classes, while the Ricardo Toscano Quartet gave a workshop on small combo dynamics.

Each evening the SCAT Music Club and Restaurant played host to the festival jam session, which kicked off at around one in the morning and ran, well, late. The Ricardo Toscano Quartet was the house band with guitarist Andre Santos, and musicians from nearly all the festival bands turned up to rock the venue, interacting well with the local musicians.

Day Three

Dave Holland/Zakir Hussain/Chris Potter

If ever three musicians had the Midas touch, then Dave Holland, Zakir Hussain and Chris Potter would be likely candidates. Every musical vein they've ever dug, or so it seems, has struck gold. From Miles Davis and Ravi Shankar to Shakti, from Steely Dan, Anthony Braxton and Grateful Dead's Micky Hart, to Pat Metheny, Kenny Wheeler, Betty Carter and Craig Taborn, their respective collaboration, spanning a huge slice of twentieth and early twenty first century music, have bequeathed a veritable banquet of extraordinary music.

It doesn't always follow that star line-ups produce the goods, with egos often getting in the way of genuine communication, but no such charge could be levelled at thee three wonderfully attuned musicians. The opening "Lucky Seven," however, felt like a limbering up exercise, with extended solo improvisations from Potter—on soprano saxophone-Holland and Hussain following one after the other. Potter's "Island Feeling," penned in St. Lucia, saw the saxophonist lead the way on tenor with a breezy melody over a delightfully simple, two-note bass ostinato. As Potter gradually loosened up so too did the rhythms behind him, the greater freedom inviting the saxophonist to stretch out. Holland, effectively soloing already, sculpted a beautifully weighted solo when Potter sat out, the trio reuniting on the head.

On "J Pai" Hussain paid tribute to John McLaughlin, with whom Hussain developed a deep musical bond through the fusion of Hindustani and Carnatic music in Shakti, and, after a twenty-year hiatus, with Remember Shakti. Sadly, the death of the group's mandolin player U. Srinivas in 2014 means that Remember Shakti has more or less parked up. However, the improvisational spirit of that remarkable band was rekindled, to a degree, in Potter's dancing melodic improvisation and Hussain's close shadowing. Hussain's solo invited some gentle sparring from Holland, but there was little real swagger in interplay which felt a tad conservative.

The final tune, "Hope," began with a nod to Billy Strayhorn's "Take the A Train." Thereafter, Holland's grooving bass lines and Hussain's percolating rhythms underpinned Potter's most fired-up soloing of the set, culminating in an intricate unison motif. The ecstatic crowd demanded an encore but had to settle instead for a second bow from the trio.

There was no doubting the elegance of the tunes, the lyricism in the playing, and the tremendous individual virtuosity. At the same time, there was still the nagging feeling that the trio's communal dialogue, full of sparks, only occasionally caught fire.

Jason Moran Bandwagon

Hard to think of another outfit quite as unique and versatile as Jason Moran and the Bandwagon with which to conclude a festival. Hard to believe, too, that nearly two decades have passes since The Bandwagon's debut, Facing Left (Blue Note, 2000). In that time the trio of Moran, bassist Tarus Mateen and Nasheet Waits has developed a broad rhythmic vocabulary that runs the gamut of twentieth century jazz and beyond. For the final act of Funchal Jazz Festival 2018, Moran, Mateen and Waits served up a feast of contemporary jazz at its most audacious.

The trio raised its standard high with a rollicking version of "Gangsterism Over Ten Years," the relatively simple melodic framework providing the launching pad for devilishly intricate trio interplay—Moran dictating the tempo with quicksilver bluesy runs and percussive insistence. At its most delicate the lyricism shone through, while at the other extreme the trio's thunderous intensity was little short of electrifying.

"Blessing The Boats," written by Moran's wife, classical soprano Alicia Hall Moran, and inspired by Lucille Clifton's poem of the same name, was a subtly persuasive blend of pop sensibilities—melodically uplifting and rhythmically spare. The trio paid tribute to the late, great Geri Allen with "Feed the Fire," an impassioned interpretation that inspired breathless runs from Moran over Mateen's ship-steadying bass ostinato. With "Crepuscule for Nellie" there was simmering, blues 'n' gospel-infused bow to Thelonious Monk, which went from slow-chugging groove and walking-bass swing to Moran's dizzying stride-cum-bebop freewheeling. A susurrus, brushes-steered version of Johnny Green's 1930 classic "Body and Soul" proved that this trio also captivates on the most delicate of ballads.

A fiery, abstract piano interlude, Moran crossing his hands in rapid relay as he pounded the keys to devastating effect, bled into a jaunty version of "Russian Piano Rag," George L Cobb's ragtime parody of Rachmaninov's Prelude in C-sharp minor. Moran, you feel, however, is deadly serious about the history of music he borrows from, is inspired by, refashions and births anew. In the elasticity of this trio's rhythms, embracing everything from ragtime to hi-hop, resides practically the whole history of jazz.

It was fitting, therefore, that the trio signed off with a Fats Waller-inspired, though contemporary take on Ted Snyder's Tin Pan Alley hit "Sheilk of Araby." With Moran toggling between mantra-like pounding of the motif and racing embellishments, and a raucous collective groove blasting out into the Funchal night, it was easy to imagine how the likes of Neil Cowley, and a whole host of modern piano trios, take their cues from the indomitable Jason Moran and The Bandwagon.

Wrap-up

There was one final act of Funchal Jazz Festival 2018, and a special one at that. The jam session in SCAT brought Jason Moran and Chris Potter to the stage in an unforgettable session. Watching Potter in full flow, it was easy to imagine that there is no better jazz tenor saxophonist in the world. It was a real privilege for all in attendance to see such jaw-dropping musicianship up close. A special word for Ricardo Toscano and André Santos who held their own in the heat of the jam—both musicians revealing the strength of their musical personalities and their individual voices.

With funding from the local municipality as well as high profile private sponsors, the Funchal Jazz Festival seems to have solid foundations moving forward. Musically, the program this year was strong, as indeed it has been for each of the previous four editions. The music starts and ends late, but that means you have time to dine in a relaxed manner and enjoy the music in the cooling, late evening.

Another aspect, seemingly minor, that made the festival stand out was the complete absence of piped music before and during the acts. This made for a relaxing vibe, where the only soundtrack during these periods was the babble of conversations. Perhaps more festivals should consider the value of silence between acts. Finally, the team that festival director Paulo Barbosa has assembled around him deserve great credit for doing an excellent job in making sure that everything ran smoothly. Everybody involved in the festival was welcoming and friendly, and the hospitality, on this large rock in the Atlantic Ocean, was, like the music itself, outstanding.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Renato Nunes

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