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John Hollenbeck’s Claudia Quintet at the Earshot Jazz Festival

Spyro Gyra, 2006; Ludwig Afonso, Tom Schuman, Jay Beckenstein, Scott Ambush and Julio Fernandez

This year’s Puerto Rico Heineken JazzFest was filled with surprises, both on and off the stage. First, while walking through the hotel lobby on the eve of the festival I heard a familiar guitar sound. It was an unbilled guest appearance by Steve Khan playing with an excellent combo of local musicians including bassist Ramon Vasquez, drummer Efrain Martinez, and percussionist Carlos Maldonado. The group sounded so good playing originals and tunes by Monk, Shorter, and Jarrett, it’s hard to believe this was their first time performing together.

The festival proper began under a full moon in the Tito Puente Amphitheater with trombonist Jimmy Bosch igniting a set of high octane salsa dura (hard salsa). Bosch, who cut his teeth with Cachao, Ruben Blades, Willie Colon Celia Cruz and others, led a sextet in spirited versions of “Otra Oportunidad,” “Speak No Evil,” “Descargarana” and a killer encore of “Un Poquito Mas,” which had the crowd up on its feet. Special moments from rubber-faced timbalero Nicky Marrero, tenor man Jeff Lederer and baby-faced baritone sax and flutist Mauricio Smith Jr.

Spryo Gyra had the unenviable task of following Bosch, but they offered up a well-played, crowd-friendly set of grooves and endless ostinatos with some rock and funk around the edges. The quintet, with saxophonist Jay Beckenstein, keyboardist Tom Schuman, guitarist Julio Fernandez, bassist Scott Ambush and drummer Ludwig Afonso is celebrating its 25th anniversary, and based on the audience reaction, there are many people who love this sort of thing. Unfortunately, I’m not one of them. There’s something to be said, however, for the fact that the stadium was nearly filled on what is traditionally the least attended night of the fest.

After spending the next afternoon touring part of the city known as Old San Juan, we gathered again in the Amphitheater for the second night of the festival, totally unprepared for the phenomenon known as Edgar Abraham. The young saxophonist came out in an eye-popping yellow Chinese silk suit and ponytail and spent the next 45 minutes on stage like a man possessed. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a jazz musician indulge in so many show-biz gestures, from endless preening and prancing to jumping off the stage into the audience. He displayed his circular breathing technique, played some Hendrix riffs on bass guitar and, several times, threw his alto sax 10 feet into the air before catching it. If there had been a bar nearby, he surely would have walked it. Every now and then he would strike a pose like Yul Brynner in The King and I. Needless to say, the crowd went for it in a big way. Musically, the best moment came when singer Nydia Caro came out and performed “Summertime” without any trace of bombast.

Abraham was followed by pianist Monty Alexander and his Tribute to Bob Marley band. Alexander seemed to have as much fun as the audience; dancing to the infectious grooves, inserting unexpected polytonal moments into “I Shot the Sheriff,” even playing a Count Basie tag-ending on “Lively Up Yourself.” The capacity crowd spontaneously began singing along to “No Woman No Cry,” which seemed to inspire the band to further heights. The audience demanded encores (“Otra!”) and guitarist Junior Jazz got everyone on their feet with his vocal rendition of “Stir It Up.” Even the jaded critics in the press section were grinning like fools.

Cuban Pianist Tony Perez closed the evening with a super, high-energy group including saxophonist Jon Ball, bassist Charles Flores and special guests: drummer Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez and the reigning conga king Giovanni Hidalgo. Perez is an exiting and impressive player and this was a rare chance to see him in his element. Bassist Oscar Stagnaro (from the Berklee School) sat in for one number and played a melodic bass guitar solo. Giovanni played fast and furious on both timbal and congas and the band pulled off the rare combination of flash and substance.

Day three began with a visit to the (relatively) new, beautifully designed Museo de Arte in Santurce where I was captivated by the paintings of social realist Francisco Oller, the gorgeous oxidized glass windows of Eric Tabales and the photos of Jack Delano and Hector Mendez Caratini. The music Saturday night was no less moving with drummer Tito de Gracia playing high voltage salsa and Latin-jazz before a capacity sold-out audience that spilled into the aisles. Gracia’s horn section, with saxophonist Manuel Pelallo, trombonist Gamalier Gonzalez and trumpeter Fernando Marcano ripped hot solos, especially on the hip arrangements of “Billie’s Bounce,” “Songo Pa’ ti” and “Get Together” (based on the changes of “Dahoud”). But it was the rhythm section that really made this group special. The leader plays trap drums with timbal and he, Raul Rosario and Ramon Rodriguez explored and superimposed various time signatures with great dynamic contrast on “6 x 8.”

This year’s festival honored the legendary Argentine saxophonist “Gato” Barbieri, who came out looking elegant as always in his scarf and trademark black fedora. Gato seems a bit frail these days and he’s losing his eyesight, but he still sounds strong and his solos were concise and passionate, especially in songs like “Cuando Vuelva a to Lado,” “Europa,” “Llamerito,” “Bolivia” and “Summertime.” Midway into his set, the saxophonist was presented with two paintings, which he admitted he couldn’t see very well, and he modestly suggested that he let his music speak for him. As he resumed his set, Gato concentrated on short phrases with sustained tones rather than long lines, and his huge sound and distinctive tone, with occasional squeals into the altissimo register are still inspiring after all these years. Special props for keyboardist Mark Soskin and the fretless electric bassist Mario Rodriguez.

Daunting as it may have been to follow Gato on his special night, vocalist Dianne Reeves rose to the occasion with one of the best sets of the entire festival. Leading her trio with Peter Martin, piano, Greg Hutchinson, drums and James Genus sitting in for Reuben Rogers on bass, Reeves was in very fine voice, singing her greetings, reinventing older pop tunes, scatting a bebop blues, offering a sorrow song, telling stories with beautiful ballads like “Skylark” and “You Go to My Head” and finally doing a 6/8 “Summertime” with a chant to Oshun. As good as Reeves’ records are, you need to see and hear this woman in concert. There are few singers in any genre who connect with the audience in such a meaningful way.

For the 10th consecutive year, professors from the Berklee College of Music traveled to San Juan to offer an intensive weeklong crash course of jazz and contemporary music. They worked with more approximately 150 students at La Escuela Libre de Musica and these professors and students opened the final night of the festival The show was interrupted several times by passing showers, but that didn’t seem to dampen the enthusiasm of the crowd who simply swayed with their umbrellas. The Berklee professors got a set to themselves, and the band, with vocalist Donna McElroy turned it out, especially on the rocking “Imagine My Frustration” and the Eddie Jefferson lyric to Bird’s solo on “Lady Be Good.” At the conclusion, McElroy confessed, “I want to thank Charlie Parker for bending my brain for two years trying to learn that son of a bitch.”

Guitarist Romero Lubambo, bassist Nilson Matta and drummer Duduka Da Fonseca, better known as Trio da Paz, are amazing, deceptively virtuosic musicians. Yes, they’ve obviously got heavy chops, but they never use their technique just to show off. They began with a fluid, harmonically sophisticated “Saudade da Bahia” in which they sounded and looked relaxed, even at fast tempos. On “Café,” Lubambo wove long, complex lines and Matta showed he is a supremely melodic bassist. Bachiao mixed J.S. Bach and the baiao rhythm, and “Take Five” was performed in 3/4 time; an interesting challenge that somehow worked. The drummer played mostly brushes throughout the set, but picked up his sticks and played an ambidextrous solo on Spirits. For an encore, they performed a simple, heartfelt and gorgeous version of the bossa nova classic “Corcovado.” There’s no group touring the festival circuit that does this sort of thing as well as this group. Just sublime.

The last big surprise of the festival was the appearance of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, in place of the previously billed Los Van Van. I had seen the orchestra at IAJE in January and they hit like a heat-seeking missle. Under the direction of pianist Arturo O’Farrill, the 17-piece band came out roaring on “Wild Jungle” with saxophonists Mario Rivera and Ivan Renta locking horns, trading choruses then soloing together in a fiery climax. Rivera’s beautiful tone and ideas were displayed on the tender bolero “En la Oscuridad.” Someone should record this guy doing a ballad record—he’s one of the giants. Alto saxophonist Bobby Porcelli’s tart and smoldering sound were heard to great effect on “Sambia” and the “Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite.” Trumpeters Michael Phillip Mossman and Jim Sealey made the most of their solos on “Havana Blues” and “Humilty,” the latter a commission by Tom Harrell. “Iron Jungle,” commissioned by Angel “Papo” Vasquez, is a jazz bomba with thick textures hip modern fills by the pianist, and excellent solo work from trombonist Louis Bonilla and baritone saxophonist Pablo Calogero. As good as all the horn soloists were, it’s the rhythm section that really drives this orchestra, and bassist Ruben Rodriguez, percussionists Milton Cardona and Joseph Gonzalez and especially drummer Phoenix Rivera (Mario’s son) deserves much of the credit. The set, the evening and the festival ended with the second encore; an extraordinary “Para Los Rumberos,” which found Mario Rivero riding the Latin rhythm wave and the crowd going nuts for the Tito Puente classic. There’s nothing you can do with such an exhilarating performance except submit, with pleasure.

Originally Published