27 August 2008

Almuñécar jazz festival 2008

By Tapani Lausti

Our eighth experience at the annual Almuñécar jazz festival was a pleasant surprise. We had thought that the list of artists didn't compare well with some of the previous big-name offerings. These doubts evaporated already during the first concert. Although we are not great fans of current jazz singing, Dianne Reeves proved to be the perfect performer to get things going in a nice groove. Accompanied as she was by great musicians her concert was a delighful experience.

Israeli bassist Avishai Cohen was a new name for us although we had read rave reviews of his concerts and discs. The trio of Cohen's bass, Shai Maestro's piano and Mark Guiliana's drums created an occassionally hypnotic effect by moving from quiet statements to a gradually growing rhythmic intensity. Cohen's bass playing certainly deserves all the praise. Listen to his excellent CD Gently Disturbed (Razdaz Recordz 2007).

Spyro Gyra was one of the old-time big names of the concert. All the musicians were in great form. Jay Beckenstein's lively alto sax was a marvel. Yet, the music for us was not a very memorable experience. However, compared to, for instance, their latest CD, Good to Go-Go, hearing them live is much more exciting.

Next evening offered another surprise. A group of young Granadian musicians led by pianist Sergio Pamies followed in Chano Domínguez's flamenco jazz footsteps — even using Thelonious Monk's (and Wayne Shorter's) tunes. Yet, it did not sound like imitating Domínguez's approach. The music had a light touch with a deliciously swinging flamenco beat. There was nothing artificial about the fusion of two genres of music. Listening to their album Entre amigos confirms the positive impressions. Their concert at Almuñécar also featured the harmonica player Antonio Serrano who follows in the footsteps of the great Toots Thielemans.

Surprises did not stop there. We had never even heard of the Cuban pianist Roberto Fonseca. From the programme notes we learned that he had played with the famous Buena Vista Social Club, substituting for Rubén González. Fonseca turned out to be a delightful performer. His music can be heard on the CD Zamazu (Enja 2007).

Audiences at the Almuñécar jazz festival love African music. This was evident in the evening when Gerald Toto, Richard Bono and Lokua Kanza took to the stage. Indeed, the evening was entertaining although not one of the more memorable evenings of African music that we have heard.

Terence Blanchard is undoubtedly one of the leading trumpet players of our time. His playing has gathered admirers ever since he joined the Art Blakey Jazz Messengers in the 1980s. Blanchard's programming at Almuñécar was daring. His band started with a 50-minute piece. It was A Tale of God's Will (A Requiem for Katrina) from Spike Lee's documentary about the hurricane called When the Leeves Broke. The sophisticated audience took it all in gratefully although at moments the music demanded more concentration than most people can manage close to midnight. I have to confess to secretly hoping for a finger-snapping encore. But no, we got a long rendition of Funeral Dirge, again connected with the Katrina tragedy. The quality of the music and its serious message made you feel ashamed of your secret expectations.

Blanchard's pianist Fabian Almazan added to the Cuban musicians featured at this year's festival. Not to forget Sergio Pamies's Cuban trumpet player, Eric Sánchez.

The concerts we missed were by Ivan Lins and Nnenna Freelon, and Bettye Lavette.

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