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Review: The 45th Barcelona Voll-Damm International Jazz Festival

A world-class festival that's bound to its community

Cecil McBee and Billy Hart, 2013 Barcelona Voll-Damm International Jazz Festival
Chucho Valdes, 2013 Barcelona Voll-Damm International Jazz Festival
Ravi Coltrane, 2013 Barcelona Voll-Damm International Jazz Festival
Richard Bona, 2013 Barcelona Voll-Damm International Jazz Festival
San Andreu Jazz Band, 2013 Barcelona Voll-Damm International Jazz Festival

What a difference a year makes. This year’s edition of the 45th Barcelona Voll-Damm International Jazz Festival was welcomed, as usual, by a respectable level of citywide backing: banners on street-poles throughout downtown; schedules inserted into local papers; posters on the primary sponsor’s beer trucks. But the kind of support that matters most, as any festival producer will tell you, comes down to the number of seats that are filled. Barcelona’s annual festival-taking place in various venues throughout the city from mid-October through December 1st-is back on top after a few years of economic challenges: sold-out and nearly sold-out shows, and over-the-top coverage in local media.

I was there for the first two weeks of this year’s festival. Saxophone Summit, the Coltrane-inspired, three-horn sextet featuring Dave Liebman, Joe Lovano and Ravi Coltrane, opened the festival with an intense, church-like power as they delivered music composed by its members, plus a diverse, reworked dose of John Coltrane music, including “Blues Minor,” “Peace On Earth” and “Ole.” The rhythm section-pianist Phil Markowitz, bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Billy Hart-is as intuitively locked into each other as the music requires. The concert took place in the Teatre-Auditori in the small town of Sant Cugat, a somewhat tony neighborhood only 20 minutes from downtown Barcelona.

At the same venue a few days later, Dianne Reeves, accompanied these days by a limber rhythm section (her regular pianist Peter Martin intact, plus Brazilian guitarist Romero Lubambo), gave a 90-minute set that was not so much about jazz per se, but more about rhythms and moods. “Our Love Is Here To Stay” was the sole tune she sang that evening that was drawn from the standards songbook. She kicked off the set with a ’70s triad: her take on Stevie Nicks’ “Dreams,” Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You” and Bob Marley’s “Waiting in Vain.” Some beats were clearly American, like a loose-limbed New Orleans streetbeat, or a soulful blues. Others had a global feel, like an African groove or a tango (appropriately on Reeves’ original “Tango”), with all the tunes showing off the flexibility of Reginald Veal and Terreon Gully, on bass and drums. Impressively, Reeves never left the stage for 90 straight minutes, her vocals the powerful, unflagging focus of the show.

These concerts-plus one by bassist-singer Richard Bona that was audience-participatory and fusion-flavored (including a high-energy take of Jaco Pastorius’ “Teen Town”)-were proof that it’s generally better to catch a band on the latter swing of a tour. They also showed that one could measure a festival’s success if it can consistently present headlining artists who seem to save an extra something for that particular festival. Take it from one who’s worked on the serious side of the production barricade: that effect comes from providing hands-on support and an environment in which bands don’t have to be overly concerned about day-to-day stuff: consistent meals, reliable travel, regular sleeping patterns.

It’s obvious that Barcelona’s developed an experienced festival staff, and that it benefits from the personal touch of the man in charge, Joan Anton Cararach. Cararach has been the face of the festival for 11 years, its artistic director who travels often to other cities and festivals, promoting his own and working on its programming. He also helms the production and promotional efforts, greeting the bands and dealing with their issues, emceeing the various events and afterwards updating festival news on Facebook, Twitter and the festival website.

It can be a demanding, round-the-clock job, as big as one wants to let it become. Few festival honchos take on as many roles as Cararach. New York City’s Bill Bragin-the head of Lincoln Center Out of Doors and Globalfest-is the only other impresario who immediately comes to mind as being as personally hands-on with musicians and as compulsive (and effective) with social media.

Cararach continues to envision how the festival integrates itself into Barcelona, securing participation from various top-class Catalan restaurants like Monvínic, Set Portes and Gurqui, and has been committed to creating a series of ancillary events: panel discussions, film screenings, a fusion of wine tastings and musical performance, and an impressive free 18 masterclasses at the Conservatori Liceu, Barcelona’s leading music school, led by visiting musicians or journalists.

Cararach’s also brought a new idea to Barcelona, perhaps one to be picked up by other festivals: combining a top-level wine-tasting and dinner with an intimate, parlor-like solo performance by a well-known jazz artist. He calls it “The Monvinic Experience,” after the wine-obsessed restaurant that hosts it; guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, pianist Omar Sosa and trumpeter Paolo Fresu have performed for the jazz gourmands who have attended in past years. Ravi Coltrane returned from the close of the Saxophone Summit tour to make this his first experience, sampling a top-tier selection of Catalan wines and preparing eight solo pieces to match each. It may sound a little hokey, especially given the jazz world’s need for authenticity in expression, but the resulting music that Coltrane performed would’ve been great with or without bottled accompaniment-and vice-versa, to be honest. There was a moment when Coltrane played slow blues on tenor that was, simply put, transporting-everything, Monvinic included, melted away. What a great event to then melt back to!

The Barcelona Jazz Festival has always been noted for its mix of Mediterranean climate, Catalan culture and a particularly Iberian take on the international jazz scene. It makes sense that the festival’s offerings would also reflect Cararach’s personal taste, and that his particular penchant for Cuban music-jazz, but also folkloric music-has been generously represented in the festival’s schedule for a number of years.

“Rumba Para Bebo” was the memorial concert that Cararach proudly called the centerpiece of this year’s festival: an all-star salute to Cuban piano maestro and giant Bebo Valdés, who passed away this past March, yet whose huge shadow of influence as one of the primary movers of Cuban music will long remain undiminished. The gala was conceived jointly by Cararach and Bebo’s well-known, piano-playing son Chucho and in fact, the celebration spilled onto other evenings, including a screening of three films involving Bebo on three successive evenings prior to the “Rumba”: filmmaker Fernando Trueba’s well-known Latin Jazz tribute Calle 54 from 2000, highlighted by Bebo and Chucho’s historic father/son duet; Chico y Rita, the 2010 animated, music-driven tale of star-crossed Cuban lovers for which Bebo provided the music; and the new documentary Old Man Bebo.

Chucho and his group the Afro-Cuban Messengers helmed the multi-genre “Rumba para Bebo,” which also featured a musically diverse, mostly Cuban cast performing music almost exclusively from Bebo’s ample songbook. The range of talent in the room made it clear how rich and far-reaching the music is that comes out of the cultural cauldron on that one, relatively small island. Among the many delights: Jerry Gonzalez performed a heartfelt “Bésame Mucho” on flugelhorn, with Javier Massó “Caramelo” on piano and Javier Colina on bass; Colina later returned to play a deep, soul-stilling duet with Chucho on “Bebo’s Blues.” Pianist, bandleader Lázara Cachao, daughter of the great Orlando “Cachaíto” López and niece of fabled bassist Israel “Cachao” López, was a sparkplug onstage, directing the band and delivering a boisterous take of “Descarga Del Bebo” with the Messengers; later Bebo’s daughter, vocalist Mayra Caridad Valdés, joined her to sing the ballad “Serenata En Batanga.” Other players who added to the revelry with spirited performances: trumpeter David Pastor, tenor saxophonist Eladio Reinón, and clarinetist/percussionist/vocalist Doan Manfugás (who, it happens, is Cararach’s wife; Bebo was the best man at their wedding. The Cuban circle is a tight one.)

Pianist Omar Sosa led an ensemble of white-clad percussionists and singers, Malongo, in a chant-and-beats ceremony, “to honor the ancestors, for Bebo” that was drawn from palo monte, the Cuban religion that grew from Congolese traditions. While the singers sang onstage, a well-rehearsed dance troupe cleared space on the floor and offered barefoot ritual dances.

The evening opened with Chucho playing a solo rendition of “Oleaje,” a piece of music that Bebo had written for his son before leaving Cuba. A mid-concert breather turned the heat down with a 15-minute, solo piano celebration of Cuba’s lesser-known classical tradition of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The selections were composed by Ignacio Cervantes and Ernesto Lecuona and played adeptly by pianist Mauricio Vallina, the Havana-born and Brussels-based protégé of noted maestra Martha Argerich. The last number in this interlude, Cervantes’s “Tres Danzas Cubanas,” featured four hands on the piano; Vallina sat next to his old Havana music school comrade, Paloma Manfugás, another world-class pianist.

“Rumba Para Bebo” was loose and unpredictable at the start. It was meant to be a party-Bebo himself had requested one, and asked that no one weep, and everyone eat chocolate and drink rum. Sugar and alcohol may be one way to kick it off, but would all the music flow together? Would the revelry lose energy, or get derailed by the intensity? Anything was possible, but in the end it was a three-hour coup: all joyous spirit and a well-staged production.

The evening’s closing number shared the title of the event itself, and was written by Chucho, who said the music was given to him by his father in a dream. It was delivered as a descarga, the energy building to a sweaty pitch as all musicians and dancers crowded together onstage, plus a few espontáneas. By the end the entire house was moving in unison and no one seemed to be leading the musical charge-everyone was just pitching in together, onstage and off. The chant chorus, “Vamos! Con permiso, vamos!” kept cycling, higher and higher in intensity.

One can attempt to manufacture a finale like that-many festivals try on a regular basis-but there’s no guarantee it will attain that cathartic, happy ending. “Rumba Para Bebo” did, happily and organically.

The party did not end however. The next night Chucho and the Messengers had their own star turn, headlining another sold-out show, this one in Barcelona’s best-known venue, the Palau de la Música, and this one more on a straight-ahead, even funky, Latin jazz groove, betraying Chucho’s adoration for modern jazz styles of the ’50s and ’60s (“Ohhh, I love Wynton Kelly!” he exclaimed over a lunchtime conversation earlier that week.) He’s an incredibly articulate, informed player-long, clean lines that often quoted other melodies, like Paul Desmond’s “Take Five”-and a generous bandleader, giving his current group ample room to stretch out that evening: bassist Gastón Joya, percussionists Yaroldi Abreu and Dreiser Durruthy, and drummer Rodney Barreto all shone during their solo moments. (Not to choose favorites, but I was especially drawn by the inventive playing of Abreu and Joya.)

A few final thoughts: an offhand comment by one musician the evening of the “Rumba” stuck with me: In post-revolution Cuba after 1959, he said, jazz was looked upon as “imperialist music” and officially banned. Though many musical flavors avoid detection by adopting other names, the act of playing jazz or being a jazz musician is revolutionary or, rather, counter-revolutionary. Beyond jazz, pursuing a musician’s path in Cuba is not an easy one and has made many decide to leave, separating themselves from families and community for years at a time. (Bebo Valdés left in 1960, never to return, which effectively wiped his name and music off the official record in Cuba.) Yet the rich and continuing musical tradition betrays no sense of separation. It remains strong and connected, as this year’s Barcelona Jazz Festival revealed, even an ocean and continent away.

Years ago on my first visit to that part of Spain, I picked up on the idea that short of jumping on a plane to Havana, Barcelona is one of the top two or three cities on the planet to which the music of Cuba flows directly. There’s a lot of back and forth between those two cities, an exchange that goes back at least to 1948 when Bebo Valdés and other Cuban musicians met the mostly Catalan orchestra Los Chavales de España. But for me, it was this year’s jazz festival that truly got me to feel the full power of the clave that resides in Barcelona (clearly, a Cuban visit is clearly overdue for this journalist.)

Hanging among these musicians those few days offered another lesson: how small the Cuban musical family really is, and how comfortably different musical experiences and generations co-exist and feed into one another. New Orleans is the American reflection of this shining example, as anyone familiar with Ned Sublette’s groundbreaking books on the Cuba-Louisiana connection will know. Sublette was there in Barcelona that night, one of three U.S. journalists covering “Rumba Para Bebo”-in his case, for public radio’s Afro-Pop Worldwide. I believe that a festival’s ability to succeed and maintain its stature, its brand in today’s terms, lies at least partially in its to choice to host non-revenue-producing events and make other things happen that raise awareness, exchange ideas, and increase discussion, like inviting Sublette and others to attend, and share it with others.

The weekend prior to the Rumba, I witnessed what could be the best example of the festival’s guiding philosophy at its de facto nerve center, the Gran Hotel Havana (the name purely a happy coincidence). It was the third year in a row that saxophonist Joan Chamorro’s Sant Andreu Jazz Band, a youth orchestra of 30 students ranging in age from 8 to 16, performed as part of the festival. It was a revelation noting how far they had come in that time as the group performed, ably handling the sashaying rhythmic feel of “Feelin’ Good,” the song most associated with Nina Simone, and a sophisticated arrangement of “Georgia on My Mind.” When Chamorro told me how many of his students planned to continue playing professionally I was amazed. “Ninety percent,” he said proudly.

I believe it’s the mark of a truly world-class jazz festival that sees itself not just as a major stop on the road for international jazz heavyweights, but one that takes care of its community in this sort of fashion, helping to grow future players and develop audiences as well. Barcelona has that balance down. As its first two weeks this year proved, the city is supporting the festival with its attention and attendance like never before.

All photos by Lorenzo Duaso Polo, courtesy of Barcelona Voll-Damm International Jazz Festival.

Originally Published