Panama Jazz Festival Focuses on History, Cultural Connections
Posted 2/17/2014

For the first time since it launched in 2003, the Panama Jazz Festival (PJF) took place outside the crowded environs of Panama City. This year’s edition transpired on the grounds of Ciudad del Saber (City of Knowledge), a 300-acre complex near the Panama Canal that includes academic institutions, NGOs, information-technology firms and a first-rate outdoor food court.

On Jan. 17, the fifth night of the festival, founder and Artistic Director Danilo Pérez performed repertoire from his new album, Panama 500 (Mack Avenue), a suite that explores Panama’s half-millennium as a planetary crossroads, coalescing indigenous, South American, African and European flavors into stories rendered in jazz dialect.

The strength of the melodies belied the complex clave rhythms and extended harmonic motion that underpin them. Pérez’s ensemble—violinist Alex Hargreaves, bassist John Patitucci, drummer Adam Cruz, conguero-batá drummer-cantante Roman Díaz and two indigenous musicians—sustained continuous flow. Patitucci executed chops-busting bass lines with grace and elegance; Cruz painted kinetic rhythmic shapes; Díaz morphed batá beats in synchronicity with the piano.

Halfway through, vocalist Lizz Wright—who had opened the concert with an enthusiastically received gospel-, blues- and pop-themed set—displayed her luminous interpretive skills when she joined Pérez to sing Milton Nascimento’s “Bridges,” propelled by the pianist’s inexorable development of the theme.

On Jan. 16, Pérez played timbales and congas on a Patitucci-directed concert by the Global Jazz Ambassadors, an octet of students from Berklee’s Global Jazz Institute (GJI), for which Pérez serves as artistic director. Among the highlights were Patitucci’s six-string electric bass tour de force on “Afro-Blue”; a guest appearance by Danilo Pérez Sr., who animated a bolero in the Beny Moré manner; and strong solos on a piece inspired by Hermeto Pascoal by guitarist Leandro Pellegrino and saxophonist Gustavo D’Amico, both GJI students of Brazilian descent.

The previous night, at Pérez’s brand-new jazz club in the American Trade Hotel in the old section of Panama City, Patitucci displayed his six-string wizardry in trio with his brother (guitarist Tom Patitucci) and drummer Richie Barshay on wide-ranging repertoire—nuanced ballads and blues, a pair of Beatles tunes, a Larry Young number, New Orleans funk and a samba.

Earlier that night, saxophonist Kenny Garrett played a stunning concert with his quintet (Vernell Brown, piano; Corcoran Holt, bass; McClenty Hunter, drums; Rudy Bird, percussion). He opened with an ascendant alto solo, projecting a piercing, soul-searing tone, like Jackie McLean on steroids. After a brief piano solo, he faced off with the drummers, developing the melody over a relentless bass and piano vamp à la Pharoah Sanders.

On the next tune, Garrett ratcheted up the intensity, following Brown’s lengthy McCoy-to-Monk solo with long tones that evolved into descending lines. He transitioned to an interstellar space duo with Hunter, spitting out the notes like bullets, projecting cries, shrieks and yelps. There followed a theme evocative of Woody Shaw and Sanders, on which Garrett tamped down the volume—but not the passion—before moving into an “Alabama”-like theme on which he fragmented the melody and launched a group improvisation consisting of husky croaks, piano trills, arco bass and the sounds of djembe, tuned bells and talking drum.

For its first 40 minutes on Jan. 14, the Pisco Trio—tenorist George Garzone, Israeli bassist Ehud Ettun and Peruvian drummer-cajónist Jorge Pérez-Albela—moved fluidly from event to event in an open-form, conversational manner, sometimes in tempo, sometimes rubato.

Clearly inspired by his younger partners, Garzone was endlessly creative, eliciting an encyclopedic array of textures and breath control, shifting dynamics, creating melodies and discoursing fluently through a lexicon of post-1955 tenor saxophone styles. These qualities also infused the trio’s navigation of John Coltrane’s “Central Park West” and “Mr. P.C.” as well as a playful, swinging Garzone refrain titled “Strolling Down Bourbon Street.”

Ted Panken

Pianist Danilo Pérez and singer Lizz Wright onstage at the Panama Jazz Festival on Jan. 17. (Photo: Panama Jazz Festival/Bill Bytsura)


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