Panama Jazz Festival: January 10-15, 2011

Panama Jazz Festival: January 10-15, 2011
Emilie Pons By

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8th Panama Jazz Festival
Panama City, Panama
January 10-15, 2011
Being a jazz musician anywhere is difficult, and perhaps even more so in Panama, Mexico, or even South America. However, the Danilo Pérez Foundation, at Plaza Herrera, in San Felipe, the heart of the historical part of Panama City, makes it easier. Every year the Danilo Pérez Jazz Festival brings musicians from France, Boston and New York, as well as young Panamanian, Chilean, Argentinian, Mexican or Colombian jazz musicians to mingle; the students can thus learn from maestros such as Tom and John Patitucci, Matt Marvuglio, Conrad Herwig, Claudia Acuna, Brian Lynch, Danilo Pérez himself, and many other brilliant minds and increase their knowledge of the music.

For highly gifted Mexican guitarist Nacho Alcantara, who came to play at this year's festival with the Guadalajaran Foundation Tonica, directed by trumpeter Gilberto Cervantes, "jazz education is a personal teaching process, like an oral tradition, so the impact of having great jazz musicians around you teaching you stuff is big; it is the real essence of jazz education."

Alcantara adds that "the Danilo Pérez jazz festival is really important because it focuses on making Latin American musicians grow. Danilo Pérez is really interested in giving jazz to Panama people, to poor people, to people from everywhere. It is a great labor." For Alcantara, with the festival, "jazz is coming out of the States, people are coming out of the States to cultivate the music with other great musicians from all around the world."

Of course, Panama is not known for its jazz scene. The astonishing 20 year-old Panamanian saxophonist ED Samuel Batista thinks it is hard to find people to play with in Panama. For him, "with the festival, it is totally different. Once the festival ends, it's hard to learn." Talented 26 year-old Panamanian flautist Melvin Lam Zanetti explains that club owners in Panama are in favor of "ambient music rather than proper shows." Charismatic and insightful Chilean saxophonist Patricia Zárate adds that there are "two or three jazz clubs" in Panama, as well as "casinos [where musicians play] salsa every weekend. [But] restaurants are starting to have music every week."

Fortunately, the festival is growing every single year and it looks like it will keep growing. During one week, this wonderful event offers clinics, workshops and master classes at the ATLAPA Convention Center. Lam Zanetti believes the festival, due to Panama's geographical location, is a "most helpful" and convenient platform for Latin American musicians. Pérez's vision proves breathtaking, on more than on one level: not only does he really bring jazz to Panama, but he also ventures into helping Panamanian youth in real need. Additionally, his festival is a way for a lot of musicians from Latin America to audition in Panama with the prospect of entering an American music Institution.

For instance, ED Samuel Batista—currently a student of the Danilo Pérez Foundation— attended the Berklee five-week summer program in 2009. For him, the festival is educating people about jazz. Every year more people learn about it. Batista's teacher is Patricia Zárate herself, Danilo Pérez's wife. Batista practices several hours a day (sometimes nine), and sees Zárate a couple of times a year. This original and vibrant saxophonist recently graduated from the art school of INAC (Instituto Nacional de Cultura de Panama). Batista started playing at age 15 and will certainly continue charming his audiences.

From left:Patricia Zárate, Danilo Pérez, Maria Eugenia Herrera, at the Panama Teatro Nacional

With her husband's foundation, Zárate has seen "miracles happen." As she explains, Pérez's dream has always been to "bring a festival to Panama." And "in 2003, his dream came true." The foundation was born in 2005 in order to "institutionalize ... community [oriented] [projects]." The foundation has helped create "scholarship opportunities" in a "country of three million people, with 36% of the population [living] under the poverty line." Zárate describes her husband as "a visionary and an idealist." Through his work, she has heard "horrible bands sound great." She has "seen bad- behaved kids transform with the music [and become] in control of themselves emotionally and spiritually." She adds that "it is very difficult to do anything in Latin America and to have a first world festival is a miracle. The government has given scholarships to students who had trouble eating every day. Untalented people have transformed [in]to talented people."

Every year the festival is dedicated to an older Panamanian jazz musician; last year it was pianist Sonny White; in 2007, singer Barbara Wilson and in 2006 flutist Mauricio Smith. This year the festival paid tribute to trumpet player Vitin Paz, and for the very first time the honored musician was present, because he was still living. Pérez has thus managed to create an international intergenerational jazz festival. The list of musicians Paz has played with is very long, and includes Benny More, Celia Cruz, Eddie Palmieri, Frank Sinatra, Nat "King" Cole, Tony Bennett, Benny Goodman, Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Charles, Quincy Jones, The Jackson Five, Stevie Wonder, Sarah Vaughan, Bill Evans, Aretha Franklin, James Brown. The 78 year -old Paz currently teaches at the University of Panama, and is the leader of its big band. He also has his own quintet. According to Lam Zanetti, "Paz is not only a memorable trumpet player but also an influential teacher."

Danilo Pérez

For a lot of Panamanian volunteers working during the festival (most of them are musicians themselves), the festival is like a family. What Pérez keeps creating and fostering is a tight community of musicians and music oriented individuals trying to help make the music happen and continue to happen.

For Alcantara, "jazz is a collective experience. When you play jazz you play with other people, you're always with other people. The essence of jazz is communication. So when you're performing, you have to communicate; in order to create a great solo, a great ambiance, a great energy, you have to communicate with the guys you're playing with; you have to learn to study, have fun with them; communication is the nature of jazz."

During his inspiring master class on Thursday, January 13, 2011, Pérez played some African music and talked about "democracy through different rhythms." While playing pieces from Mozambique, he mentioned the community's different points of view reflected in the rhythm (6, 4, 3). For him, "everybody has an important message." While playing some Tanzania pieces (in 6/8), Pérez asked his students to pay attention to the call- and-response patterns. He referred to African music as healing and communication- oriented, and he encouraged his audience of musicians to ask themselves the following questions: "What do you want to talk about? What is your story?" For Pérez, "the conversation matters [and not the instruments]; at the end of the day it's about connecting, improvising in the moment. We do it all the time. Everything we practice has to have a relationship with the human heart. When it stops we die."

With bands as varied as the Harlem String Quartet, the Danilo Pérez Trio, the Daniel Garcia Trio or musicians as breathtakingly talented as Brian Lynch or Paoli Mejias, it would have been difficult, this year, to not be delighted with the festival's music.

The festival started on Monday January 10th and ended with a most rhythmic "descarga" (a Latin jazz session) between Saturday 15th and Sunday 16th. Musicians played every single day, at the ATLAPA convention center, in the San Francisco neighborhood of Panama City, but also at the nightly jam sessions of the El Panama hotel, in the El Cangrejo neighborhood. Had the El Panama Hotel drinks been a little cheaper, perhaps musicians might have enjoyed the jam sessions even more.

One of the most important shows was on Wednesday night, at the lovely, cozy and refined National Theatre of the Old town of Panama (Casco Antiguo de la ciudad), where the Danilo Pérez Foundation is located. The American ambassador of Panama, who had hosted all the festival people the night before at his house, was sitting close to the stage. This extraordinary concert started with a series of beautiful compositions by bassist Ricardo Del Fra's jazz section of the Conservatoire National de Paris, and was followed by the astonishing performance of the Harlem String Quartet. The university of Panama's big band closed the show.

Three inspiring female singers, Claudia Acuña, Idania Dowman and Diana Duran, each with a style of their own, opened the big band's performance with "Mambo Rincon." They continued with La Lupe's "Que te pedi" and Gershwin's "The Man I love." ED Samuel Batista, Melvin Lam Zanetti and saxophonist Nestor Gonzalez, among other stunning musicians, were part of the band. Lam Zanetti and Paz chose all the songs together and Paz, in the course of his long and prolific career, has recorded each one of the songs performed that evening.

Danilo Pérez and his father—bandleader and singer Danilo Pérez Sr.—performed Cuban composer Ricardo Pérez's riveting bolero, "Tu me sabes comprender," together Ricardo Pérez passed away last year. Pérez father and son's interpretation of Benny More's 1963 recording of the song made some Panamanian members of the audience shiver. Emotions filled the theatre. Danilo Pérez Sr. dedicated the song to his wife.

Claudia Acuña and her quartet

After the concert, everybody went to the National Institute of Culture for a huge reception with champagne! The old part of Panama City looked ravishingly beautiful under the moon and it felt like a dream with such heat.

On Thursday and Friday evening, the musicians invited to the festival performed at the ATLAPA Anayansi Theatre. On Thursday, pianist Daniel Garcia performed with his trio including guitarist and singer Jorge Pérez Gonzales and percussionist Alain Pérez. The trio's guest, flamenco dancer Anita Loynaz, mesmerized the audience with her grace and vitality. Despite being pregnant, Claudia Acuña sang admirably, following Daniel Garcias' trio and accompanied by her quartet. Trombonist Conrad Herwig, a former student of Vitin Paz, closed the evening with his intriguing and charming Herbie Hancock arrangements.

On Friday evening, the Panamerican Percussion Ensemble led by Omar Diaz and with guest Paoli Mejias, preceded Pérez's performance with his trio's musicians—bassist Ben Street and drummer Adam Cruz, as well as saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, Mejías, vocalist Sara Serpa and flautist Matt Marvuglio—all featured on Pérez's last album, Providencia (Mack Avenue Record 2010). Pérez's musicians also performed the following day on the Cathedral Square, la Plaza Catedral, but for a much shorter time. Before each one of his two consecutive shows, Pérez reminded his audience of the importance of water which has been contaminated due to the recent flooding. In December 2010, it had been 100 years since there had been that much rain in Panama. And the canal had to be closed—the last time was in 1989, no less than 21 years ago.


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