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Panama Jazz Festival: Panama City, January 14-19, 2013

Josef Woodard By

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Panama Jazz Festival
Panama City, Panama
January 14-19, 2013
Taking in the dense, ambitious and unusually large-spirited phenomenon that is the Panama Jazz Festival, which rounded the corner to its milestone tenth anniversary in this year's mid-January edition, the question of how this institution came to pass lurked in the periphery. How was it that this rare, serious jazz festival in the region, with a strong and integrated education component, has flourished and gradually, steadily grown and deepened with the years?

Like many a grand and not necessarily pragmatic or lucrative cultural project, it took a visionary to raise a village, that being Panamanian national hero and famed jazz pianist Danilo Pérez. Over the past decade, Pérez has had opportunity to don multiple hats to make the festival work as well as it has. He was the festival's founder; he was its well-connected artistic director who has brought down many a fine world class musician to get involved; and his powers as a musician have been woven into the program—this year, as in past years, in his longtime, sensitive role as pianist in Wayne Shorter's quartet. His passionate educational impulses have led him to launch the Danilo Pérez Foundation, engaging underprivileged Panamanian youths in jazz studies, as well as the Global Jazz Institute, a hand-picked group of impressive young Berklee students who, on the basis of their performances here, we can expect to be hearing from out in the "real world."

Pérez is also something of a general purpose spiritual guidance counselor and impassioned, articulate festival spokesman, who said at the opening press conference that the festival "has become a cultural project in all of Latin America." Not incidentally, he is also an executive spouse. Just before the festival began, he tied the knot in a church wedding with Patricia Zarate, who is the festival's executive director, an added bonus of personal significance for this big week in his home country. Overall, a sense of pride in the progress so far, and optimism for the future, pervades this unique model of a jazz festival, with humble origins and grand visions in a small but pivotal corner of the world.

In the thick of the festival, the schedule was dense and rewarding in different ways. By day, the festival's action took to the sprawling compound now known as the "City of Knowledge" (Ciudad del Saber), a defrocked and peaceably repurposed U.S. military base left over from the long period of American entrenchment in Panama, which gained sovereignty over the canal region in 1999. This self-enclosed camp was the site of master classes, seminars, interviews with artists, auditions for Berklee School of Music (where Perez teaches and leads his Global Jazz Institute project) and New England Conservatory, as well as Zarate's first annual Music Therapy Symposium and other activities.

By night, the headliners—Herbie Hancock in solo mode, Bill Frisell in John Lennon project mode, Peruvian heroine Susanna Baca and Shorter—held forth in grand and artful style in the vast Teatro Anayansi. By late night/early morning, jam sessions carried on, often on a high musical level into the wee hours at the central Hotel El Panama. These jam sessions continued yielding high points as they went, keeping some of us up past our bedtime, as when tenor saxists Matt Halpin and Panamanian Jahaziel Arrocha had a steamy tête-à-tête on a Latin-ized "Giant Steps" around 2 a.m.

Also in the same room, the luminously fine German saxophonist-bandleader Timo Vollbrecht and his "New York Group" presented some dynamic and emotive contemporary jazz notions, blessed with rhythmic fluidity and some intricate twists in the song structures.

On Saturday, the final day of the festival, a nine-hour, free-to-the-public concert brought thousands to a vast lawn at the City of Knowledge. The throng took in a succession of groups including singer Michelle Coltrane, a short but galvanizing set featuring another Panamanian hero, Ruben Blades, and a big band led by Pérez with cameos by Susanna Baca and Zarate on alto sax.

At a breakfast conference which included Shorter, Baca, Frisell, and the deputy minister of tourism, Perez returned to a central theme underlying his concept for the festival, citing "the influence of the canal" as a source of confluence between cultures and musics, and as a mediating zone between north and south, east and west, and differing viewpoints. "Globalization has been here for a long time," Perez asserted. "The meaning of this festival is about tradition passing into the future, like the canal." Shorter joined in, adding "it used to be Istanbul, the crossroads of the world."

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