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Review: Mexico’s Jalisco Jazz Festival

A July 4th weekend of Latin-infused cosmopolitanism

Ernesto Ramos and Big Band Jazz de Mexico, Jalisco Jazz Festival 2014
Fela Dominguez with Big Band Jazz de Mexico, Jalisco Jazz Festival 2014
Gary Burton Quartet with Burton, Julian Lage, Jorge Roeder, Marcus Gilmore, Jalisco Jazz Festival 2014
Diego Maroto, Jalisco Jazz Festival 2014
Brian Lynch and Emmet Cohen, Jalisco Jazz Festival 2014
Screaming Headless Torsos with David Fiuczynski and Freedom Bremner

As a storm brewed over Guadalajara the night of July 6, the Screaming Headless Torsos closed out the second annual Encuentro de Jazz en Jalisco, delighting a multitude of screaming Mexican fans at the Instituto Cultural Cabañas. Guitarist David Fiuczynski, the leader of the omnivorous group, known for its electrified hybridization of jazz, prog-rock, psychedelia, rap and microtonal experimentation, turned around and began shaking his backside. “Make some noise!” he said. The frenzied tapatíos, as Guadalajara residents are known, gladly obliged, clapping along regardless of the time signature. Come hell, high water or both, the crowd was not going anywhere. The Torsos, the festival’s headlining act, spent the July 4th weekend practicing their Spanish for one big reason: they’re huge in Mexico.

Latin-infused cosmopolitanism characterized the festival, which took place from July 3 through 13, featuring an array of Mexican and American artists cultivating the cross-fertilization of jazz across the Americas. In addition to the Torsos, vibraphonist Gary Burton, multireedist David Murray and trumpeter Brian Lynch, all of whom touted their connection to Latin tradition, joined Mexican artists saxophonist Diego Maroto, Big Band Jazz de Mexico and the Bad Boys Blues Preservation Band for a weekend in Guadalajara’s picturesque historic district.

Concerts including Miguel Zenón, bassist Boris Kozlov’s Charles Mingus tribute, trumpeter Pete Rodriguez, bassist Hans Glawischnig and drummer Henry Cole, in addition to a colloquium of industry professionals, took place in the days following the free open-air mainstage event. The festival, organized by Guadalajara arts presenters Fundación Tónica, also included a weeklong youth jazz camp with many of the performers serving as clinicians.

Though Guadalajara is not known for its jazz scene, Mexico’s second largest city and the capital of the state of Jalisco boasts a rich folkloric heritage: the birthplace of mariachi music, an outgrowth of son Jalisciense, the nearby town of Tequila, made famous by its chief export, a strong ecumenical backbone, and the wide sombrero. Yet Guadalajara transcends these cultural markers, with its ornate neo-classical architecture and filigreed plazas, a cosmopolitan commercial hub, a thriving community of artists and artisans steeped in the Aztec tradition and a varied live music scene ranging from local salsa acts to the Jalisco Philharmonic. The University of Guadalajara, with a student body exceeding 225,000, imbues the city with a youthful counterculture that comprised most of the festival audience.

Big Band Jazz de Mexico, led by saxophonist Ernesto Ramos, opened the festival with a tribute concert to Mexican multireedist Rodolfo “Popo” Sanchez. The 16-piece tuxedoed outfit formed nearly two decades ago and largely covers big band standards such as Maynard Ferguson’s “MacArthur Park.” The rhythm section, anchored by drummer Mario Garcia Cruz and auxiliary percussionist Armando Espinoza “Pinaca,” who at one point played “Reveille” on tuned bongos, infuses the swing with a propulsive polyrhythmic flair. The highlight was Fela Dominguez, a startling 25-year-old Mexican vocalist with coloratura range, who delivered impassioned renderings of ballad “Volverás” and the brisk “Granada.”

The Gary Burton Quartet, featuring frequent collaborator guitarist Julian Lage, bassist Jorge Roeder and drummer Marcus Gilmore, got off to a rocky start with technical difficulties, but the stalwart 71-year-old vibraphone giant shrugged off the feedback. His deft four-mallet virtuosity and ingenious chord voicings were in rare form on Burton’s “Remembering El Tano,” dedicated to tango composer Astor Piazzolla, from the New Gary Burton Quartet’s 2013 release Guided Tour (Mack Avenue). Lage simply soared on an extended unaccompanied rubato introduction to “My Funny Valentine.”

Tenor saxophonist Diego Maroto and his Asian Trio, aptly named for the persuasion of its other two members, bassist Jonathan Ho and drummer Benjamin Low, performed compositions from their live album recorded at Kuala Lumpur jazz club No Black Tie. Maroto’s sensibility favors vertiginous cascading notes, gradually stripping a polished technical veneer as he takes it as far out as he can go. Maroto is palpably influenced by David Murray, whose act followed.

Murray’s Infinity Quartet, with bassist Jaribu Shahid, drummer Nasheet Waits and Orrin Evans in the rotating piano chair, has the World Saxophone Quartet iconoclast asymptotically approaching the harmonic limits of his material on tenor saxophone and bass clarinet within a comparatively accessible framework (collaborations with Macy Gray, Gregory Porter and Saul Williams have aided that project). His invigorating take on the late Butch Morris’s “Spooning” and his own Albert Ayler-inspired “Flowers for Albert,” the lyrical title track from his 1976 debut as a leader, shows that the free jazz master still has more to say. As Murray broke the altissimo barrier on a combustible cadenza, Dolphy, a Guadalajara ice cream store chain a stone’s throw from the festival tent, seemed apropos.

Brian Lynch premiered a duo project with the promising pianist Emmet Cohen, a former student at the University of Miami, where private lessons evolved into a mix of standards and originals for a forthcoming album on Lynch’s Hollistic MusicWorks label. Rather than drawing from his Latin work with Eddie Palmieri, Lynch mined territory previously explored by Kenny Wheeler and John Taylor, though Cohen’s frenetic arpeggios and polyrhythmic feel created a more buoyant aesthetic; standouts included “Over the Rainbow,” “Just in Time” and Cohen’s “Mystic Arrow.”

The Screaming Headless Torsos closed out the festival with selections from Code Red, scheduled for release this summer, their first studio album since 2006 outing Choice Cuts (FuzeMore). Zappa meets MMW, with a backline bolstered by versatile percussionist Daniel Sadownick and a bracing debut from 23-year-old bassist Dwayne “MonoNeon” Thomas, a former student at Berklee College of Music of Fiuczynski. As the Torsos unleashed microtonal hell and the wind kicked up, heat lightning in the distance presaging the downpour to come, the Torsos’ Mexican fans got what they came for, paraphrased by vocalist Freedom Bremner: “Lust for life, and life for lust.”

Originally Published