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

Josef Woodard By

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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."


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