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

Josef Woodard By

Sign in to view read count
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."

Pérez' canal reference wasn't just poetry in motion. Panama is a small but internationally mighty country of four million, and with 35% being undeveloped jungle, is one of the most stable and economically sturdy Latin American countries. The magnetic and driving force that is the canal, currently undergoing a massive expansion project slated to be open for its hundredth anniversary in 2014, can't be denied. At a reception on the fourth floor balcony overlooking the Pacific Ocean-side Miraflores locks of the canal, the gathering included Shorter and Herbie Hancock—both rapt and fascinated by the ships passing in the night—while a traditional band of young musicians in the Tamborito style of drumming and singing spiced up the Panamanian evening air.

For the tenth anniversary, Pérez assembled a modest but ideally balanced handful of headlining artists for the occasion, most notably bringing his hero Hancock to Panama for the first time. Hancock was properly feted, in music circles as well and also in officialdom. On Tuesday morning, Hancock was granted the proverbial "keys to the city," and treated to a respectful ceremony in the ornate mayoral headquarters of the Casa de Municipalidad, in the old section of Panama City.

Later that morning, an entourage of artists, VIPs and press headed a few blocks away to where the Danilo Pérez Foundation is housed on two floors of the building which once housed the music conservatory where Pérez himself studied as a young musician. On this morning, a band of young, upper elementary school-aged Foundation musicians, along with their teachers, were jamming to Hancock's "Cantaloupe Island" as the great Hancock himself walked in with Shorter, and an inspiring exchange took place in the room. The young musicians expressed their awe and appreciation for the presence of the masters, and Hancock told the group "all of you have been a gigantic inspiration to me. I can feel your heart. I can feel that you want to be here. You must be getting something from this." Then the band kicked up on another Hancock tune, and after warmly listening to each soloist, Hancock moved over to the piano for a few choruses, lending some grace and approval to these next generation jazz makers.

On the next night, the connection continued as the young up-and-comers actually opened the concert for Hancock. Before embarking on his impressive solo piano adventure of a set, Hancock told the crowd "this has been an amazing week of experiences. The most important thing is the Foundación. It's about culture. It's about life. It's about music, but it's also about ... corazon."

The same could be said about Hancock's performance, which was ear-opening to the degree it makes us wonder why he hasn't explored and recorded more often in solo mode. In his recent work, Hancock has leaned into pop, groove and generally accessible winds with an electro-acoustic band, but he summoned greater musical power and firepower through his own vast vocabulary and natural, virtuosic, venturesome way with a grand piano. In solo mode, you can hear his musical idea wheels turning and changing, accessing elements of his musical life so far in the fluid mix.

Starting with a poetic restructuring of his old ally Wayne Shorter's "Footprints," he moved onto the various themes of a balladic rhapsody on "Embraceable You"— reharmonizing on the fly—and the glowing luster of his original "Chan's Song" (as heard in the film 'Round Midnight). He also served up blues and funk-lined musical goods, a crowd-pleasing touch, vamping on "Cantaloupe Island"—a theme song of his festival experience, as it turned out—in ways that embraced the party place and more cerebral detours.

On the following night, the festival's big room hosted a study in complementary contrasts—Frisell's jazz-pop impressionism and Baca's enchanting Afro-Peruvian musical mastery. I caught Frisell's John Lennon tribute project in its infancy, when just a trio played a surprise all-Lennon show at the Berlin Jazz Festival. Years later, the concept expanded and deepened, resulting in the memorable album All We Are Saying (Savoy, 2011) and a live show which handily glided across presumptions and pigeonholes.

In Panama, the group—now with right-hand allies, violinist Jenny Scheinman and steel player Greg Liesz, and now with bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wolleson—set the stage by opening with a dreamy, deep version of "Across the Universe," alternately misty, disjointed and polytonal at the end. Highlights of the set included buoyant "Beautiful Boy," a floaty waltz take on "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away," a tearfully lyrical version of "In My Life" (which Frisell also played in solo form at an interview at the City of Knowledge that afternoon), and jazz-colored psychedelia for the encore of "Strawberry Fields."

As a point of sympathetic stylistic joinery for the evening, however unintended, Frisell and company tapped into African elements and spirits in their version of "Come Together," making for a point of resonant cross-reference to Baca's sensuous Afro-Peruvian sound. Baca's stellar quartet eased into a groove and the earthy-ethereal Peruvian chanteuse entered, barefoot and dressed in fluid, gauzy blue layers. As a musician and as a stage presence, Baca has a subtle yet strong and centered charisma. She's magnetic, in the truest and least calculated sense of the word.

Baca, also the Minister of Culture in Peru in addition to being a so-called "world music" icon, humbly commanded the stage, while seamlessly stitching together African, Peruvian and sometimes flamenco-like qualities in the music, as when she was backed by just nylon-stringed guitar and cajon. She's riding the energy wave as heard and crystallized on her 2011 album on Luaka Bop, Afrodiaspora, but to hear her in live form is to witness a poetic powerhouse, one for the ages. Her role in a jazz festival setting, and specifically this one, was an inspired and geo-sensitive touch in the programming.

Friday's big show at the Teatro Anayansi opened, fittingly, with one of Pérez ' ongoing endeavors back home in Boston, the young Global Jazz Institute group, with guest drummer Adam Cruz in the mix. The musicians here, including solid tenor player Halpin, nimble trombonist John Egizi, also saxophonist Clay Lyons, drummer-percussionist Sergio Martinez, bassist Jared Henderson and pianist Caili O'Doherty, appear to be going somewhere, yes, but also have a confident sense of musical self at this developmental point.


Shop for Music

Start your music shopping from All About Jazz and you'll support us in the process. Learn how.