01/22/07

Panama Jazz Festival 2007

Danilo Perez is on a mission, backed emphatically by Panama’s Minister of Tourism, master sonero Ruben Blades, during an intimate press breakfast. According to Perez, the Panama Jazz Festival is “a gathering that goes beyond music and speaks to the heart. The most powerful result we have seen is from the children. This is the reason we do this.” Indeed the impact of this festival—produced by the Danilo Perez Foundation—on the children of Panama is felt almost immediately.

Dedicated to the late Panamanian jazz singer Barbara Wilson, the opening night festival curtain was appropriately raised at the exquisite opera house Teatro Nacional by a short set from trumpeter Reggie Boyce, one of Ms. Wilson’s longtime compadres. The program also included the persuasive vocal improvisations of Reto de Trovadores, and a jam session involving visiting musician-educators from the New England Conservatory and Berklee College of Music. For the ebullient director the crowning moment came when he trotted out three exceptionally talented youngsters. Like a proud papa, Perez introduced nine-year-old Milagros Blades on a small djembe drum, teenage tenor saxophonist Jahaziel Arrocha and pre-teen pianist Tony Madruga for short solo turns and an audience-rousing trio groove on “St. Thomas”; boss Perez joined Madruga for some four-hand piano. All three kids are from modest backgrounds and at breakfast with Blades, Danilo worried over whether Arrocha, a ubiquitous presence on the festival’s nightly club jams, was eating anything other than his ever-present tenor. They are but three shining examples of Perez’s mission bearing succulent fruit across this lovely country.

Music education is the core platform of this festival. Throughout the six days there were daytime clinics and education programs for Panamanian youth, including concert tech tutelage from some Berklee reps. In each education session the students were rapt, thirsty for the word of music, where others in more fortunate surroundings might be meandering off into video games and teenaged chatter.

The concert star of this festival was by acclimation the vivacious vocalist Nnenna Freelon. She paid warm verbal homage to Barbara Wilson, who was remembered in video to start each of the three evening concerts. A cheery, relaxed and confident presence with a dancer’s build, her sinewy arms gracefully gesticulating, Freelon’s artistry has seasoned well, placing her in the upper echelon of jazz voices. On Friday evening she electrified the charmless, cavernous Teatro Anayansi, continuing to capture hearts Saturday evening at the daylong free blowout on lively Plaza Catedral. The latter was quite the scene, homemade refreshments ladies and entrepreneurial beer men hawking their wares amidst the boisterous, controlled masses, many of whom camped out for the entire joyous marathon, which commenced at 1:00 p.m. and finally ground to a halt over 12 hours later.

Besides Nnenna, who upped the energy for her outdoor set, replete with canny arrangements of Stevie Wonder, two other women captivated the Panamanians and the festival’s growing cadre of tourists. Argentine vocalist Mili Bermejo, long a fixture at Berklee, beguiled the audience Thursday and Saturday evenings enveloped in the still-developing special ensemble Banda Tributo a Chile. This promising project brings music and lyrics to the poetry of such noted Latin American masters as Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral. The beautifully complimentary arrangements were from the pen of the group’s alto saxophonist, Patricia Zarate, spouse of Danilo. Noted Chilean rock drummer Francisco “Pancho” Molina neatly transitioned to the subtleties of Zarate’s arrangements and Bermejo’s sublimely seasoned voice; bassist Dan Greenspan and pianist Nando Michelin rounded out the band. This is a budding project and its progress from the Thursday evening debut to their Saturday afternoon plaza performance was palpable.

If it wasn’t Nnenna Freelon who most thoroughly captivated the Panamanians, it was the Columbian harp virtuoso Edmar Castaneda. Alternately strumming power chords and maintaining an insistent bass line, Castanada is sort of the Charlie Hunter of the harp.
Equal to the task was his trio mate trombonist Marshall Gilkes, whose facility is prodigious. Drummer-percussionist Dave Silliman craftily augmented his kit with the Latin American box drum known as the cajon. After experiencing two concerts and a clinic performance of this trio, obviously Castanada has built his approach largely on virtuosity. More attention to shading, nuance and subtlety is much needed if he is to penetrate the world stage.

Other featured acts included the Panamerican Big Band under the direction of veteran trumpeter Victor Paz and a New England Conservatory ensemble investigating composer-arranger Ken Schaphorst’s mixed palette. Danilo, who limits his festival performances, helmed Las Estrellas de Jazz de Panama, an all-star assemblage of some of Panama’s finest jazz exports including saxophonists Carlos Garnett and Jorge Sylvester, bassist Santi Debriano, percussionist Renato Thoms and drummer Billy Cobham. It was a rather rare Cobham sighting given his longtime residence in Switzerland, so their performances on the Friday evening concert and the plaza on Saturday were much anticipated and did not disappoint. Though somewhat wobbly due to short rehearsal time and a fairly challenging set list, the spirit was willing and the musical brotherhood was evident. Garnett’s Coltrane soul opposite Jorge’s knotty alto lines provided a spirited frontline. Sylvester, a compact man with a distinctive silver goatee, contributed a lemony ballad devoted to his mother that was a highlight. Debriano’s piece “Laments” began with a rich arco cadenza, and Perez wove a lovely solo during “Besame Mucho” in tribute to honoree Barbara Wilson. Cobham soloed with four mallets and was by turns a driving and complimentary force. Given more development time this could truly be a band; it was decidedly not a case of ad hoc Jazz at the Panharmonic.

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