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The Scene: Vision, Talent, and Heart at Panama Jazz Fest

Panama Jazz Festival celebrates its 20th edition

Luciana Álvarez conducts Las Hijas del Jazz. Photo by Sharonne Cohen.

Celebrating its 20th edition in January with verve, variety, and heart, the Panama Jazz Festival is a musical, cultural, and organizational wonder. It presented a plethora of musical, educational, and cultural offerings, with stellar performances by an impressive roster of local and international artists. Maintaining its strong focus on music education and cultural exchange, the festival is supported by a dedicated, highly competent team, including hundreds of volunteers and leadership that advocates for the integration and empowerment of women. It was a tremendous success that seemed to have a profound impact on each and every participant: musicians, staff, and audiences. 

Back in full force after a challenging 2022 edition heavily impacted by COVID-19, the six-day event (Jan. 16-21) featured venerated Cuban pianist Chucho Valdés, now 81; vocalist Catherine Russell, daughter of Panamanian jazz pioneer Luis Russell; Children of The Light, the supergroup of Danilo Pérez, John Patitucci, and Brian Blade; the intriguing Global Jazz Womxn, and much more—over 100 events, drawing 40,000+ people. 

Luis Russell Collective. Photo by Sharonne Cohen.

The festival is the largest cultural event in the region. It was founded in 2003 by renowned Panamanian pianist-humanitarian-educator-activist Pérez and his wife, Chilean saxophonist-educator-music therapy advocate Patricia Zárate (who serves as the festival’s executive director) with the mission of inspiring, educating, and building a better future for individuals and communities through jazz. Music education and outreach are paramount concerns, with the festival offering five full days of clinics, master classes, and symposia at the City of Knowledge (a decommissioned U.S. Air Force base formerly known as Fort Clayton). Scholarships totaling approximately $50,000 were awarded to outstanding students for studies at Berklee College of Music and New England Conservatory, offering opportunities for growth and learning.

Also of prime importance is Panama itself. “The history of jazz would be incomplete without Panamanian artists,” stated Pérez at the festival’s opening, mentioning Billy Cobham, Alex Blake, and Rubén Blades, and announcing Luis Russell—an influential pianist, composer, and bandleader who was Louis Armstrong’s longtime musical director—as this edition’s honoree. Russell was the subject of master classes, including one in which the Luis Russell Collective focused on two of his compositions: “Come Back Sweet Papa,” recorded by Armstrong, and the yet-unreleased “Bocas del Toro.” Russell’s daughter, vocalist Catherine Russell, delighted the audience as she performed this song at her Anayansi Theater concert with singular flair.

Pérez repeated the motto “más mujeres, mejor país” — more women, better country — throughout the week, often as a call-and-response with the audience. Its meaning became more apparent as the festival and its program unfolded, revealing formidable female talent and leadership. “In my opinion, more women would equal a better country. We’ve worked extensively to include more women in positions of power at the Danilo Pérez Foundation and the Panama Jazz Festival,” Pérez explained to JT, noting that the professional team currently comprises 70% women and 30% men. 

The highly skilled Global Jazz Womxn ensemble offered an opportunity to discover up-and-coming female jazz artists from around the world. Founded and led by Zárate, this captivating group includes gifted students, faculty, and alumni of the Berklee Global Jazz Institute in presenting original music and arrangements by female and nonbinary artists. Alongside musical collaboration, they also hold master classes on women’s issues in jazz and conversations “about patriarchy and other topics that interest us,” Zárate shared. 

Presenting original music and arrangements by female and non-binary artists, the band featured Zárate and Israeli Lihi Haruvi on saxophones, British drummer Jas Kayser, Irish/Austrian bassist Ciara Moser, Chilean pianist Luciana G. Álvarez, and Swiss/Dutch Charlotte Lang guesting on baritone sax and flute. “We wanted each one of us to bring something to the stage,” noted Haruvi, who offered a well-received arrangement of the Israeli classic “Ose Shalom,” leading into the Panamanian folk song “El Tambor de la Alegria.” Completing the set were “The Call” (Zárate), “Between the Gaps” (Kayser), “Different Ability” (Moser) and “I” (Garcia), all compelling in different ways.

Solinka & Las Hijas del Jazz. Photo by Sharonne Cohen.

Global Jazz Womxn also played with the ambitious all-female, 30-piece big band Hijas D’el Jazz at the Ateneo Theater. This multigenerational project promotes the advancement of girls and women through musical, educational, and social exchange. Under Aleida Duartes’ executive direction and Zárate’s musical direction, the evening offered many of the young artists an opportunity to shine and featured a surprise performance by magnetic Panamanian octogenarian Solinka. The packed theater and the audience’s strong reception testified to the level of musicianship and space that exists for such a female-led, all-female big band. 

“The opportunity to work with so many women in a musical environment was one of the best and most inspiring experiences I’ve had,” Moser told JT. “The energy, ambition and sense of community everyone was striving for created an amazing atmosphere.” Moser, an exceptional bassist who is blind from birth, taught an unscheduled workshop at the students’ request, speaking about “blindness, bass playing, and the important connection between drums and bass,” sharing how she goes through life as a blind person, and how she learns music (check out her podcast “Blind. So What?”).

Displaying palpable chemistry and brotherhood, a sold-out concert by the powerhouse trio of Pérez, Patitucci, and Blade (three-fourths of the extraordinary Wayne Shorter Quartet) was another highlight. Panamanian-American singer Erika Ender opened the evening in an elegant duet with Pérez on piano, singing beloved Latin treasures. As the trio took the stage, Pérez dedicated the concert to Wayne Shorter, whose last Quartet performance was on that same stage. Imaginative and fearless, the three delved into Pérez’s “Suite for the Americas,” “Beloved (for Toni Morrison)” by Kurt Elling, and Patitucci’s meditative “Our Story,” opening with an electric bass solo equal parts mastery and tenderness. Honored earlier in the week with an award for his dedication to the festival, Patitucci reflected on how “this is the story of all of us,” and how “we can go farther if we go together, rather than by ourselves.”

Danilo Pérez, Erika Ender, John Patitucci, Brian Blade. Photo by Sharonne Cohen.

Among the most memorable performances was the electrifying Afrodisíaco at Villa Augustino, an outdoor venue located in the Old Quarter (where nightly jam sessions took place). Playing infectious Panamanian folk-fusion music, the band is centered around various drums, representing the sound of freedom and offering sociopolitical commentary. With the addition of guitars, effects, and spoken word delivered by the band’s two female vocalists and a surprise guest — a smoldering Zárate — the high-energy performance left the audience in exceptionally high spirits. 

Afrodisíaco. Photo by Sharonne Cohen.

A well-attended midday performance by the rousing Danilo Pérez Foundation Ensemble at the City of Knowledge came with an unexpected treat: Illustrious Panamanian drummer Cobham sat in on the last tune, Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island,” surprising and delighting everyone in attendance. “This is home,” Cobham told JT as he left the stage, taking time to share knowledge with gifted young female drummer Pilar Ibañez.

Danilo Pérez and Global Jazz Womxn. L to R: Jas Kayser, Luciana G. Álvarez, Ciara Moser, Pérez, Patricia Zárate Pérez, Lihi Haruvi. Photo by Sharonne Cohen.

Closing festivities took place at the quadrangle of the City of Knowledge, attended by a massive audience of about 30,000 music lovers who gathered for a full program of free shows. The final concert by Grammy-winning Puerto Rican salsa king Gilberto Santa Rosa Cortés had the audience singing and dancing. Maestro Pérez sat in for a special rendition of the emotive ballad “Para Vivir,” the two displaying a sophisticated musical interplay that was the perfect ending to this uplifting and impactful edition. 

“It’s thanks to the extraordinary educational and cultural outreach, the tremendous organizational approach to detail, and the high level of artistry, that the Panama Jazz Festival is one the most outstanding jazz festivals I have ever participated in,” noted Ronald Savage, VP and Executive Director of the Berklee College of Music.

“We’re here to raise the vibration,” said Pérez, closing out the festival. And that most certainly happened. 

Sharonne Cohen

Sharonne Cohen is a Montreal-based writer and editor. A music journalist since 2001, she has contributed to publications including JazzTimes, DownBeat, OkayPlayer, VICE/Noisey, Afropop Worldwide, The Revivalist, and La Scena Musicale; her articles are often accompanied by her photographs.