“A jazz festival can’t be about stars,” Adrian Iaies reflected as the five-day Mira Jazz concluded on Oct. 19. A pianist and one of Argentina’s premier jazz musicians, Iaies was the artistic director who cobbled public and private local, national and international support into Buenos Aires’ wide-ranging, primarily free celebration of jazz and related sounds. “Budgets only allow for so many stars. The festival has to be the star.”
On his own terms, Iaies (whose director duties allowed for only one solo at one of the festival’s jam sessions) can be considered a star-maker. Marshalling resources wisely, pairing local and visiting artists on double bills, finding new ways to spotlight his homeland’s musical proclivities and spreading the musical wealth around one of the world’s great cities, he created an event that took on the sprawling, heterogeneous richness of its locale. While the focal point each day was a ticketed concert, usually in the large Teatro Coliseo, there were also free events in the Biblioteca Nacional and other smaller halls and no-cover sets in clubs plus lectures, panel discussions and films in the Recoleta Cultural Center that abuts the cemetery where Eva Peron is buried. Jazz was happening in one or another of Buenos Aires’ historic neighborhoods literally from midday until well past midnight.
The visiting headliners were a diverse lot, efficiently deployed and drawn from Europe and Brazil as well as the U.S. Local fans were overjoyed by the first appearance in Argentina of Randy Weston, who presented his sextet to a packed house on opening night and then drew a second crowd to his solo piano recital the following afternoon. Two members of Weston’s ensemble also played twice, as tenor saxophonist Billy Harper reprised his triumphant visit to Buenos Aires 22 years earlier with support from a local rhythm section, and drummer Neil Clarke hosted a master class for the city’s percussionists. Saxophonist Donny McCaslin led a trio in a club called Thelonious, then shared the stage with guitarist Fernando Tarrés at the Coliseo the next night. The other half of that bill, Sweden’s Tolvan Big Band, saw two of its strongest soloists, trumpeter Peter Asplund and pianist Jakob Karlzon, at the head of a combo at Notorious (they know how to name clubs in Argentina).
Local tastes were honored, though often in surprising ways. One expects accordions at an Argentine festival, but the duo of Guy Klucevsek and Alan Bern served up a mix of music all their own at one of the main concerts. The pair’s mix of classical, folkloric and new-music elements was not necessarily jazz but totally fascinating. Even more unclassifiable, and the emotional peak of the festival, was Guillermo Klein’s interpretation of the music of the late Gustavo “Cuchi” Leguizamón. An iconoclastic composer who drew heavily on folkloric elements, Cuchi provided rich material for interpretation by pianist/arranger Klein, who led a local, more compact version of the mid-size group he brings to the Village Vanguard each June. This meeting of two inspired countrymen from different generations was a moving experience for all, including the several members of Cuchi’s family who were in attendance.
As with most festivals, schedule overlaps made it impossible to see everything. Hearing Harper meant missing the Porteña Jazz Band, which has been carrying the big-band torch throughout South America since 1960, while the Tarrés-McCaslin/Tolvan show coincided with that that of the Antigua Jazz Band, traditional standard bearers for 40 years. There were also inevitable letdowns, including two solo artists (keyboardist Juan Carlos “Mono” Fontana and singer/percussionist Mariana Baraj) who were miscast as openers for Weston’s two concerts, and a free concert by Klein, trumpeter Enrique Norris and drummer Oscar Giunta that sacrificed its strongest element by having Giunta spend much of his time as a second pianist. On the other hand, Rosa Passos performed a triumphal closing-night concert with her excellent quartet, including a magical acoustic interlude during which she was accompanied by her own guitar (as rhythmically daring as João Gilberto’s) and Paulo Paulelli’s bass. The best straight-ahead performance found the Spanish trio of alto saxophonist Perico Sambeat, bassist Javier Colina and drummer Marc Miralta enlivening Coltrane and Monk, Porter and Weill, as well as their own originals.