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Riviera Maya Jazz Festival

Free jazz on the beach, in Cancun, Mexico, is pretty far removed from the traditional way of celebrating Thanksgiving. For anyone wanting to get away from belly-swelling turkey dinners, “shop-till-you-drop” Black Friday, and college/professional football mania, along with cold weather, the Riviera Maya Jazz Festival is a pleasant alternative. However, mainstreamers and purists more than likely would have found the mostly contemporary-based roster, featuring drummer Billy Cobham, saxophonist David Sanborn, guitarist Earl Klugh and supergroup Fourplay a test of endurance.

Nonetheless, audiences in the range of 5,000 or more sprawled along the beautiful white-sand Playa del Carmen beach area, with evening temperatures in the upper 60s, and reveled at all the artists’ performances. From that standpoint, the opening night, on Thanksgiving, showcased only Mexican musicians and singers. Even more than in the U.S., jazz has a very limited appeal in Mexico. But it is growing, and for the homegrown artists being part of a festival was a remarkable achievement. It was quite evident that they relished the opportunity to shine before the large indigenous audience, intermixed with international visitors.

The headliner, pianist Hector Infazon and his quartet, the only unadulterated jazz players on the bill, easily equaled and at times surpassed the energy of the electric bands. Infazon played like he was possessed, reeling off fast-paced, highly imaginative and impressive runs for originals that at times resembled the work of Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Chucho Valdés and Danilo Perez, but never as far gone as Eddie Palmieri. The pianist’s rhythm section was on fire as well and supplied plenty of exciting accents and solos, with the cajon player nearly stealing some the bandleader’s allure when during an arousing segment.

Aside from obvious influences of Cuban, Latin and salsa music on the Mexican musicians, fusion has left a lasting impact on them as well and surfaced in differing variations during the Riviera Maya Jazz Festival. Aguamala, led by festival producer and drummer Fernando Toussaint (who also played with Sacbe the closing night), was in the hard-rocking camp, drawing heavily from John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, Larry Coryell and Frank Zappa. They even did a cover of Zappa’s “Inca Roads,” featuring the singer and keyboardist Pepe Moran from the unnamed large opening bossa-funk ensemble. Their “Not an Ordinary day” was a standout and sounded like a muscular version of Sergio Mendes.

Interestingly, the young sisters Ingrid and Jennifer Beaujean of the Beaujean Project could have directly stepped into Mendes’ formula of cool rhythms and beautiful singers. They captivated the audience with their cover-girl looks and winsome singing, creating lounge-like atmospheric grooves well suited for music videos and film soundscapes, often allowing the rhythm section to stretch out. That was an understatement for Moran’s second-generation fusion-based group, whose sound was a mix of Yellowjackets, Pat Metheny Group and Steps Ahead. Yet, Moran’s guitarist periodically injected scorching Hendrix-style solos for a more rocking vibe.

Iraida Noriega, a fascinating singer and former student of Sheila Jordan, opened the second night of the RMJ and went on an odyssey of expression, rekindling the breezy feeling of Flora Purim’s early ’70s work with Return to Forever and solo. Noriega alternated between English and Spanish poetic vocalizations, and scatted occasionally, with an a cappella section being her finest moment. The final evening of the festival began with the freewheeling fusion of Sacbe, Toussaint’s longstanding group with his brothers Eugenio (piano), Enrigue (electric bass) and, most notably, harmonica player Luca Littera from Italy. His background is multifaceted and he soared throughout the setting, sounding like a cross between Toots Thielemans and Gregoire Maret.

Originally Published