Nineteen years into its existence, the Dominican Republic Jazz Festival has made some real headway in carving out a niche for jazz music-in a country that has little historic association with it, even in the realm of Latin jazz. The DR is the land of merengue, a 2/4 folk form that was elevated to the national music under the mid-20th-century reign of dictator Rafael Trujillo, a part of his brutal legacy that the country has retained. If jazz fans can name any Dominican jazz musician, it’s Santo Domingo native Michel Camilo, a pianist who now resides in New York.
But producer Lorenzo Sancassani has tapped into a real audience for the music. His festival, held November 4-8 this year, takes place not in the big city of Santo Domingo but in the north-coast resort province of Puerto Plata. The resorts cater primarily to the North American and European visitors who are temporarily fleeing the mainland winter for the Caribbean. But it’s internal tourism that fills the seats, between 10-20,000 of them each year-ninety percent of them by Dominicans.
It helps that the concerts, held in the three adjacent towns of Cabarete, Sosua and Puerto Plata, are all free of charge in a country of massive poverty. (There is, however, a good-sized portion of VIP seats set aside for paying customers: more on this below.) But the festival also leans toward Latin music and artists, providing local audiences with a needed foothold. Hence it opened Thursday night, Nov. 5, with an energetic performance in Sosua by the Big Band of the National Conservatory of Santo Domingo, and closed on Sunday the 8th with the Pedrito Martinez Quartet tearing the roof off the beachfront stage in Cabarete. Don’t take that description lightly: Cuban percussionist Martinez was on fire. He did furious work on the congas, playing salsas and timbas with edgy, jazzy improvisations, yet his rhythms were actually matched by pianist Edgar Pantoja, bassist Álvaro Benavides and second percussionist Jhair Sala. And that was before they were joined by guest alto saxophonists Juan Colon and Sandy Gabriel (both Dominican) and New York-by-way-of-Puerto Rico tenor saxman David Sánchez.
Sánchez had a set of his own, on Friday night in Puerto Plata’s Parque Independencia. He told the entranced crowd that his quintet “don’t often get to play together”; that was hard to believe, since the band was one of the tightest and most simmering that this writer has seen in quite a while. They handled the 7/4 “Mirage” with unbelievable swing, conguero Pernell Saturnino holding the beat steady while bassist Orlando le Fleming and drummer E.J. Strickland pushed against with all their might. (Meantime, Sánchez and pianist Edward Simon unwound long, suspenseful solos on top.)
This band was something of a bridge for the festival’s audience: Sancassani has an ongoing goal of introducing ever more straight-ahead jazz into his lineup. Sánchez allowed for Thursday’s performance by Israel’s aggressive Roy Assaf Trio (which could just as easily have been led by the adrenalized drummer, Jake Goldbas), and Saturday’s Cabarete set by bassist John Patitucci and his trio (with tenor saxophonist John Ellis and drummer Nate Smith). This was the most straight-ahead group in the festival, working deep in the pocket and paying tributes to saxophonists Joe Henderson (“JoeHen”), Sonny Rollins (“Sonny Side”) and John Coltrane (“Meditations”).
Also on the bill was the Berklee Global Jazz Institute, comprising students from the Boston conservatory who come from (and fuse) various international music traditions. This iteration included professor and saxophonist Marco Pignataro and eight student musicians; because three are from Spain, there was a decidedly flamenco flavor to their music. Imaginative though they were, however, the band was frustrating in that it played two concerts with identical sets.
Much of the Dominican music was frustrating as well. Two performers, guitarist Manuel Tejada and Pengbian Sang’s RetroJazz, were alarmingly slick and smooth. Tejada’s band was the worst offender, filling both his tunes and performances with the easiest of clichés, down to vamp-ridden soprano sax solos. Sang’s was better, mainly on the strength of soulful vocalist Nairoby Duarte and some bluesy arrangements; however, it was primarily a cover band that focused on Latin pop hits of the ’80s and ’90s, and the fact that they covered Tejada was telling.
The opening-night appearance of the National Conservatory Big Band was a sign that jazz’s fortunes are improving in the Dominican Republic, and that’s certainly true. The Dominican Republic Jazz Festival is a project of FEDUJAZZ, a nonprofit foundation that provides tuition-free jazz education to Dominican children. The festival provides workshop opportunities for the students-with an emphasis on the performers associated with Berklee, a strong partner of the festival’s-and any proceeds from the sale of VIP tickets go directly to FEDUJAZZ. It’s a solid investment in the future of Dominican jazz, but it also made most of the present exponents of Dominican jazz that much more disappointing.
On the other hand, they also accentuated the Dominican musician who was the most exciting discovery on offer at the festival. Josean Jacobo, a pianist from Santo Domingo, and his Tumbao quartet blazed through a Sunday night program of Afro-Dominican jazz. “Setting Things in Order” shifted rhythmic shapes and tempos, while maintaining a 6/4 pulse (courtesy of drummer Otoniel Nicolas and percussionist Jarrenton DeLeon) and a splendid bass hook by Esar Simó; “Compadre” found Jacobo, under gorgeous chord changes, stretching and contracting the time like putty in the hands of a master sculptor.
Jacobo, as I learned from a long conversation the next day, is a student of Dominican folk music whose bandmates look on his erudition with awe; he’s able to articulate its history from colonial times through the Trujillo regime, in words as well as in music. This remarkable player, unknown outside of his country, deserves international recognition, and the music he champions even more so. That the Dominican Republic Jazz Festival ultimately creates such a possibility not only forgives its more egregious commercial impulses-it makes for a jazz outlet that’s vital in the most literal sense.