In its 21st year, the Dominican Republic Jazz Festival has grown from an informal gathering at founder Lorenzo Sancassani’s beachfront pizza joint into a sprawling, weeklong affair that travels from one end of the island to the other. The majority of the concerts take place in towns along the resort-speckled north coast, all free of charge in a conscious attempt to attract the often impoverished locals at least as much as the sun-and-sand tourists.
After two decades, the festival has managed to establish a tenuous foothold for jazz in the DR, where the music has a scant history and merengue is a key part of the national identity. The programming is still careful to cater to those tastes, with each night featuring a local act—which almost invariably garnered the strongest audience response in 2017. That was especially true of the closing night of the festival, which took place this year from Oct. 29 to Nov. 5, when merengue superstar Fefita la Grande took the stage.
At 73, Fefita is a local icon with a rock-star presence. She stormed the stage at midnight in a skin-tight gray leotard imprinted with blue sequined patterns, flipping her feathered blond tresses like Tina Turner and vigorously shaking her prominent posterior at the crowd, as if to show those twerking whippersnappers how it’s done. Her performance on the beach at Cabarete, while having little to do with jazz, was an all-out assault on the senses, even if her younger fans tended to forsake dancing in order to capture it all on their smartphones.
If that climactic moment was all about giving the people what they want, it was a supplement to the festival’s overarching mission of giving them something they need. In 2012, the festival established FEDUJAZZ, a non-profit foundation that offers tuition-free music courses for Dominican children underserved by the country’s public school system. Though classes take place year-round, the week of the festival provides workshop opportunities with many of the visiting performers. FEDUJAZZ is funded in part by VIP tickets to the festival, which give paying customers access to prime seating (not to mention unlimited rum cocktails), and it is by far the motivating factor for fest director María Elena Gratereaux, a prominent attorney who assumed leadership from Sancassani and promotes the events out of a sense of national pride.
Both the festival and foundation maintain strong ties to Berklee College of Music, with virtually every visiting headliner—and several local performers—having connections to the school. Saxophonist Marco Pignataro serves as artistic director of the festival and is also managing director of the Berklee Global Jazz Institute. Five of that program’s graduate-level students—a multinational bunch featuring instrumentalists from Italy, South Korea, Canada, the States and the DR—spent the week on the island, working with students and giving a pair of performances with guest artists.
Those two sets showcased the divergent teaching and bandleading styles of George Garzone and Anat Cohen. The former joined the BGJI students for a freewheeling Saturday-night set in Cabarete, featuring spirited improvisation and a hard-charging rendition of “Mr. P.C.” While much of the playing was impressive—trumpeter Cosimo Boni and drummer Vlade Guigni were especially strong—the loose-limbed approach tended to highlight the five as distinct individuals rather than as a cohesive ensemble.
The same could not be said for their set with Anat Cohen two nights earlier, in Sosúa. Always a perceptive leader, Cohen intuitively homed in on the strengths and needs of each player and coaxed or goaded them into a more focused unit. At her prompting the mismatched frontline, featuring the assertive Boni and the more withdrawn trombonist Keira Harman, found a tentative balance, while pianist Yumi Kim, at first reluctant, took a jagged, percussive unaccompanied solo in the midst of Flying Lotus’ “Putty Boy Strut” that proved to be a standout. Guigni and bassist Henry Beal formed a rock-solid rhythm section, buoyant enough to spur Cohen into a joyous, blistering solo on Jason Lindner’s “Anat’s Dance.”
Cohen’s presence in Sosúa was significant in that the city invited Jewish immigrants to settle there during the Second World War; the Amphitheatre Hotel Casa Marina, where that night’s concert took place, was mere steps from the small Museum of Jewish Heritage. Pignataro’s plan for this year’s festival emphasized a different international influence each night, with Israel being the obvious choice for Sosúa. Cohen shared the bill with harmonica virtuoso Roni Eytan, whose music drew on Middle Eastern and North African influences in a compelling if at times too sentimental set.
Their sets were preceded by hometown Berklee alum Javier Vargas, who is deeply indebted to the music of Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays but withstands the comparison with his own uniquely memorable melodies, vibrant playing and especially the pairing of his guitar with the soaring wordless vocals of Laura Bonifacio. Their show was by far the best of the local offerings, many of which tended to make too many concessions to commercial tastes.
France and, again, education were the focus of the festival’s opening Sunday night, which for only the second time brought the music down to the capital city of Santo Domingo. On a public square in the city’s historic Colonial Zone, Vargas conducted the enthusiastic Big Band of the National Conservatory of Music of Santo Domingo, who rose, albeit somewhat shakily, to the challenge of music penned by guest pianist Alain Mallet. They were followed by a quintet from the Paris Conservatory, whose planned collaboration with Riccardo Del Fra was cancelled when the bassist proved unable to attend, but who turned in a lively, chops-heavy set nonetheless.
Separated by three days and a four-hour journey over treacherous mountain roads, the fest resumed on Wednesday in Santiago, where percussionist Guillermo Nojechowicz’s El Eco trio kicked off the festival proper, with deeply personal new compositions inspired by his family’s flight from Poland to his native Argentina to escape the Nazis. The main event for this crowd was Rafelito Mirabal & Sistema Temperado, DR mainstays currently celebrating their 30th anniversary. Their integration of merengue and other Dominican folkloric traditions made for a distinctive flavor, though the band’s music too often veered into smooth jazz and show-offy pop licks. A parade of special guests made for a celebratory environment, especially the hip-shaking antics of saxophonist Frandy Sax, whose muscle-bound charm was more persuasive than his glib solos.
Frandy reappeared two nights later on the scenic town square of Puerto Plata to accompany Dominican drummer Guy Frómeta and his trio. They teetered between the crowd-pleasing saxophonist’s streamlined sensibilities and the more straight-ahead instincts of Frómeta and especially his pianist, Dutch-born, Dominican-based Jonn Reyna. On this night, though, the audience was just as thrilled by the playing of headliners Trio da Paz and particularly Brazilian guitarist Romero Lubambo, whose scintillating fretwork stoked spontaneous cheers. The week’s highlight came at the end of their set, as most of the fest’s headliners—including Pignataro, Garzone, and both Brian Lynch and Sean Jones sharing a horn hastily borrowed from a FEDUJAZZ student—strolled onstage for an impromptu jam on “The Girl From Ipanema.”
Aside from Fefita’s steamroller finale, the weekend on the beach in Cabarete featured several exciting musical moments, including a set by Pignataro’s Almas Antiguas Quartet (which allowed the saxophonist to spotlight his own Italian folk-inspired music after a week spent guesting with almost every other artist); an incisive, electrifying run by Jones and his regular quartet; Lynch’s inspired Latin rearrangements of tunes by Woody Shaw and others, including an exhilarating son montuno transformation of Miles’ “Solar” with a Cuban ensemble; and a moving set dedicated to beleaguered Puerto Rico, by trombonist and shell virtuoso William Cepeda. Whomever they may have been there to see, the crowds stretching out along the beach proved that jazz is gaining an allure in the country, one that is being well nurtured in the Caribbean nation’s younger generations.