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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.
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