2017 International Jazz Festival Wraps Up

  • Posted on: 24 March 2017
  • By: Bryan Schaaf
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Haiti: the only nation in the world established as the result of a slave revolt; home of Vodou. Haiti: poorest country in the Western Hemisphere; subject to devastating hurricanes and earthquakes. Most potential visitors to Haiti are likely to focus on the second view of the country, especially after the catastrophic 2010 earthquake which caused massive building collapse and loss of life in the capital Port-au-Prince, as well as nearby cities. Despite a strong rebuilding effort there is indeed still ample evidence of the earthquake. There are collapsed buildings in Port-au-Prince, roads in need of repair (as there have always been, due to the poor economy), and even national monuments in downtown's main square the Champ de Mars have not all been fully refurbished. Many of the rebuilt structures have been permanently altered: they tend to have fewer stories, to improve structural integrity in the event of another earthquake.   But Haitians are nothing if not resilient. Driving into Port-au-Prince from the airport, the vibrancy of street life is immediately evident. The first experience of city traffic is unforgettable: narrow streets with few lane markings or street signs, even rarer traffic lights, and motorcycles zipping in and out with little warning. Not to mention keeping an eye out for pedestrians and dogs in the road! It's all a bit alarming at first: a real Third World shock for the First World visitor. 

Now in its eleventh year (the fourth year was cancelled due to the earthquake: the foundation that runs it got permission to use their grant funds to support homeless musicians), the Festival International de Jazz de Port-au-Prince has a unique collaborative structure. Every year several of the countries with embassies in Port-au-Prince sponsor an artist, giving the event a distinctly international flavor. The sponsoring country flags are prominently featured in the festival program, and ambassadors often introduce their countrymen from the stage at the concerts. Sponsored artists typically perform at least twice over the course of the festival. Sponsors this year included Germany, Belgium, Canada, Chile, Cuba, Spain, the United States, France, Haiti, Martinique, Panama, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. Many of the concerts are free: this year Monday-Friday were unticketed, five of the eight nights of the festival. 

The opening night at the historic Parc Historique de la Canne à Sucre (a former sugarcane plantation) began with a Rara band (which provided intermission music throughout the festival). Rara is Haitian festival music, performed on drums, trumpets made from bamboo or metal pipes, and percussion. It's electrifying: energetic and loud. It did a wonderful job of establishing a sense of place, as well as firing up the crowd, which was encouraged to sing along with the Creole songs that form the repertoire. The festival opener was Canada's entry, vocalist/pianist Carol Welsman in a trio with guitar and bass. The instrumentation recalls Nat "King" Cole, and so does the breezy swing feel. She opened with "Somewhere Beyond The Sea," then did Willie Nelson's "On The Road Again" as a samba. Excellent support from guitarist Pierre Cote and bassist Rémi-Jean Leblanc. She sang Jobim's "Quiet Nights" in Portuguese—then the rain began to fall. She soldiered on with "Why Don't You Do Right?," a song associated with Peggy Lee (sung with just guitar and bass accompaniment—a nice showcase for the rhythm section), and Monk's "Round Midnight," which included new Creole lyrics that delighted the crowd—and I am told that her pronunciation was excellent. But the set was cut short as the downpour became too much for audience and performers alike. Her performance on Monday was much drier, even though it was also an outdoor venue (there are few suitable indoor venues to choose from in this tropical city). It was a similar set, with the notable addition of a version of "My Favorite Things."

After a few minutes the rain let up, so Haitian-American vocalist Sarah Elizabeth Charles took the stage, joined by guest trumpeter Christian Scott. She opened unaccompanied, a haunting vocalise augmented by live electronics. Her eclectic approach continued after the band entered, including a Haitian folk tune (her father was originally from Port-au-Prince) "Wangolo Wale," and a reggae tune. After "Face of Fun" (the title tune from her forthcoming album) she began "Amarita," a politically-charged song setting words by poet Maya Angelou. But the downpour resumed to such an extent that the set had to be cut short. The weather was so inclement that headliner Panamanian pianist Danilo Pérez was unable to take the stage. Fortunately there was an After Hours session, so he and his band were able to play a short set in a more intimate setting, with Pérez playing an electronic keyboard in place of his usual grand piano. They began with "Elegant Dance," continuing with other selections from his "Suite for the Americas." Not really a substitute for a full set, but much better than a complete cancellation. 

Sunday evening's concert began with German pianist Sebastian Schunke and his Berlin Quartet (bassist Marcel Krömker, drummer Diego Pinera, and saxophonist Danielle Freeman). The set opened rather abstractly, with Freeman really wailing on soprano saxophone. There was a montuno pattern, but the music took place at an intersection between Latin and modern jazz—a lengthy piano/drum duet closed the tune out with a sustained energy blast. Other material moved into a more mainstream Latin groove. "Ella" from his latest album Genesis, Mystery And Magic (Nwog Records, 2014) is about his young daughter, who he described as "wired." "Oma Mutti" came from Back In New York (Connector Records, 2008), an album featuring the great Paquito d'Rivera on clarinet which Schunke described as "a dream come true." The group's set on Monday was similar, but demonstrated the flexibility in the arrangements. A fascinating take on Latin jazz, incorporating generous amounts of modern jazz style. 

Haitian-American singer Vanessa Jacquemin has a style with many elements. The strongest is the samba that comes from her years in Brazil (there's even a Brazilian percussionist in her band), followed by the Parisian jazz scene. French guitarist Alex Jacquemin was the linchpin of the group, a fusion guitarist with tremendous chops. Completely supportive most of the time, but capable of taking the spotlight when required. The first appearance of pop music in the festival—albeit with a jazz flavor—with more to come.  Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba made his first Haitian appearance with his Volcan Trio (electric bassist Armando Gola and drummer Horatio "El Negro" Hernandez). It was a bravura performance in every sense. Rubalcaba is a virtuoso, and his group is more than capable of keeping up with him every step of the way. Which is not to say that it was all about flashy technical display. He paused to play an elegant Cuban danzón, which is a slow, formal partner dance. And the band revisited his original "La Nueva Cubana" from the repertoire of Projecto, his first band. A rousing conclusion to the second night of the festival. 

Interlude 1: Musée du Panthéon National Haïtien, Musée du Bureau National d'Ethnologie, Hotel Oloffson 

The National Museum is a remarkable place, full of historical objects and art that tell the story of the country going back to before independence. There's even one of the Goodwill Moon rocks, presented to the country by U.S. President Richard Nixon after the Apollo 11 mission. But perhaps the most striking exhibit is the one devoted to Haiti's many Presidents—ranging from President for Life to several who were only in power for a few months. It's a completely unvarnished view of Haiti's often turbulent political history—warts and all.   Across the street, the Museum of Ethnology celebrates Haiti's vernacular traditions, especially vodou. Drums and altars used in vodou ceremonies are on display, as well as Carnival costumes. The day's tour concluded at the famous Hotel Oloffson, known for being the setting of Graham Greene's novel The Comedians. A wonderful bit of history, apparently unaffected by the earthquake.

Dutch pianist Mike Del Ferro opened Monday night's concert, accompanied by a Haitian rhythm section of bassist Richard Barbot and drummer John Bern Thomas. He had already made a substantial contribution to the festival by ceding his after hours slot to Danilo Perez on Saturday night after the rained out concert at the main stage. He has played all over the world, and his cultural references are broad. He began with a Neopolitan song, then played a Jobim tribute utilizing two songs from his deep repertoire that are rarely played: "Olha Maria" (played unaccompanied) and "Chovendo na Roseira" (a ballad with the rhythm section). "Either Of Us" had a driving rhythm reminiscent of its inspiration in Senegal. 

Tuesday night introduced a fresh group of artists. American vocalist Halie Loren won an Independent Music Award for her first album They Oughta Write a Song (White Moon, 2008). Her repertoire includes jazz standards, pop tunes, and originals. At first blush she sounds more like a pop singer than a jazz one. Yet she did a convincing job on Nina Simone's "Feeling Good" and Etta James' "I'd Rather Go Blind," and her version of "Bye, Bye, Blackbird" included the rarely sung verse. Pianist Ariel Pocock provided much of the jazz improvisation, and (unusually) also occasionally sang backup vocals, even performing a scat duet with Loren on "Blackbird." The set also included Jobim's "Waters of March" and a samba version of Duke Ellington's "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)." 

Brothers Joël & Mushy Widmaier were the first purely Haitian act of the festival. Mushy is a pianist, composer and arranger; Joël is a songwriter-composer, drummer, percussionist and singer. After years of fusing rock, pop, jazz fusion, konpa and traditional Haitian music, they created what was called the New Generation style with ZÈKLÈ, a group that was popular for ten years, touring internationally. It's an energetic, jazz fusion sound, rich with percussion (timbales, congas, and drum kit). But the opening tune had some traditional jazz flavor in the form of scat singing and a little walking bass. The second piece was an instrumental with a hot Latin groove. Joël sang a ballad which got an immediate response from the crowd—clearly one of the group's past hits, it also featured a fine bass solo and call-and-response between voice and synthesizer. Voice and synthesizer paired again for a fast tune strongly reminiscent of Weather Report. The closing tune included a vodou chant and both percussionists on congas, an evocation of the sound of a vodou rite. An exciting end to a dynamic set. The brothers made an unexpected, but welcome return on the final night filling in for a last-minute cancellation. 

Singer and violinist Yilian Canizares hails from Cuba, but lives in Switzerland. Her set had a dramatic, atmospheric opening with tube trumpet, mbira (thumb piano), and chant. A lyrical violin melody finally broke into a Latin groove. She delved further into her Cuban roots with a chanson by Luis Carbonell, and another Cuban song "Dónde Amor." At times it seemed her violin playing was eclipsed by her singing, but she played one fast violin feature, as well as playing climactic violin passages to end some of the songs. She also sometimes plays violin and sings simultaneously, or jumps between them, call-and-response style. Her final number built up tremendous energy: she had the crowd standing, clapping along, and chanting. This was even more dramatic at her Friday performance. She sang in Yoruba with guest James Germain, a remarkable Haitian singer with an especially powerful falsetto range. And she brought a couple onstage to join her with vodou chanting, culminating in a lusty audience sing-along. 

2nd Interlude: Atis Rezistans community of Grand Rue; Marché en Fer (Iron Market) 

Atis Rezistans is an artists' collective in downtown Port-au-Prince that makes sculptures and other artworks from recycled materials: old tires, scrap metal, toys, auto parts (the community is surrounded by the makeshift car repair district)...whatever discarded materials are at hand. The effect is striking and surreal, frequently using vodou imagery as part of the visual language. The collective's work also makes a powerful social and ecological statement—art as a way of making positive use of junk in their neighborhood, a means of improving the lives of the residents, and a commentary on the failing Haitian economy.  Marché en Fer (Iron Market) is a cast iron building first constructed in France in the 1890s, then brought to Haiti. It was completely rebuilt after the 2010 earthquake, and is now once again a bustling public market, restoring a longtime Port-au-Prince landmark. Vendors offer many kinds of handicrafts (made from wood, leather, and discarded oil drums), clothing, and artwork, as well as vodou ritual supplies.

In celebration of International Women's Day, Wednesday's concert featured all bands led by women, a first for the festival. Chilean saxophonist Melissa Aldana kicked off the show. Although not literally—she explained that she was not feeling well, and would be seated while performing. She certainly sounded fine to me, with a warm tenor sound reminiscent of Sonny Rollins. In 2013 she was the first female musician and the first South American musician to win the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition. The opening tune "Concept" (composed by pianist Glenn Zaleski) established a modern, modal sound, which was continued by the second selection. She went "out" briefly during her solo, so she definitely has an exploratory streak. There was a lovely solo saxophone introduction to the ballad feature, which I think was "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered." And "Elsewhere" showed off her skills as a composer. 

French drummer Anne Paceo led a piano trio called "Triphase" with pianist Leonardo Montana and double bassist Joan Eche-Puig. Paceo is a solid composer, and her sense of time is remarkable. These were grooves so deep you could drive a truck down them, the kind that make you move spontaneously. The trio has recorded two albums: Triphase (Laborie Jazz, 2008) and Empreintes (Laborie Jazz, 2010). Two unambiguously jazz sets in a row, always a nice thing to see at a jazz festival.  Haitian-American singer Malou Beauvoir closed out the concert in grand style. She's really more a pop and funk singer than a jazz one, with large stage pop stagecraft to match. She did sing some standards, beginning with "Lover Man" (a song associated with Billie Holiday) and "You Don't Know What Love Is," as well as more contemporary territory with "This Masquerade." Once again much of the jazz improvisation was provided by her excellent (female) pianist, Yayoi Ikawa. When she brought out guest Haitian vocalist James Germain the music went to another level. He's a powerful duet partner: the African color in his vocal style recalls the great Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour. 

Interlude 3: Distillery Rhum Barbancourt 

Barbancourt Rum is a longtime festival sponsor, and their distillery is located in Damien, not far from Port-au-Prince, in the midst of a sugarcane plantation. The operation includes everything but bottle and packaging manufacture—they also purchase a large quantity of sugarcane to augment their production. The plant is self-sufficient as much as possible: they even burn the dried cane after juicing to generate electricity. We got to see the entire process, from juicing the cane to extracting the alcohol to distilling and aging. The bottling plant was especially interesting: surprisingly compelling to see the entire line in motion, with empty bottles at one end, full bottles with labels and caps at the other. Crowned by a rum tasting, which also included a sample of unadulterated cane juice. 

Thursday's show introduced a group of fresh faces to the festival. Spanish vocalist Veronica Ferreiro took the stage accompanied only by pianist Rueen Garcia. It was a bold move presenting essentially a cabaret act on a large outdoor stage, and a testament to the pair's musicality and showmanship that they succeeded so well. Ferreiro has a wide range, with an especially effective low register—in fact she was just as likely to climax on a low note as a high one. I was reminded of the French singer Edith Piaf, probably only because I lack familiarity with Spanish singers. She sang selections from her two albums in Spanish, Portuguese, and a bit of English. A song about faith with the repeated line "I'm gonna praise you, yes, my lord" had the impact of a Gospel performance. And the saucy "Don't Waste Your Time With Me" presented an opportunity for a spirited audience sing-along. The pair wove the same magic the following night in the noisier setting of the downtown square Place Boyer. 

Belgian trumpeter Jean-Paul Estiévenart and his Trio with double bassist Sam Gertsmans and drummer Antoine Pierre played an original program. One tune ended with the band in musical collapse, a free gesture that recalled trumpeter Don Cherry (saxophonist Ornette Coleman's longtime playing partner). "Blade Runner" employed a hypnotic ostinato rhythm, one way for a trio with no chording instrument to achieve a big sound. This is a band that loves to play: they had been frequent visitors at the after hours sessions all week, which gave ample opportunity to hear them play standards. Estiévenart even brought his trumpet to join in with the rara band playing intermission music following their set.  Haitian dance hall singer/songwriter Mikaben (drawing from compas, zouk, funk and hip-hop) brought in a big crowd—complete with a "fan club" screaming and singing along—for a full rock star performance experience. He sings in French, English, Creole and Spanish, and began in English with "Loving My Life." The rest of the set included a power ballad, a ballad on which he accompanied himself on acoustic guitar, and an interesting cover of Bob Marley's "No Woman, No Cry." His show concluded with a big sing-along anthem, evidently a well-known favorite of the home crowd. 

Friday night's show took place in the most public setting of the festival, the crowded downtown square Place Boyer. Veronica Ferreiro and Yilian Canizares each played a set (Cañizares had some guests this time, as noted earlier). The final slot was to have featured Mexican guitarist Paco Renteria, who was forced to cancel just days before. His replacement was a huge stylistic change, but a great crowd favorite. Haitian rapper BIC (his real name is Roosevelt Saillant) and his band brought tremendous rock energy to the stage. Clearly a popular Port-au-Prince act, they had the audience waving their arms, dancing, and singing along in short order. BIC had a strong female co-lead singer to bounce off of, and an especially talented lead guitarist. 

The After Hours sessions developed from brief shows by the featured performers to active jam sessions over the course of the week. Keyboardist Mike Del Ferro was a regular participant, as was Jean-Paul Estiévenart and members of his trio. Friday night was billed as Gardy Girault & Friends: the Haitian DJ set up beats and samples (including live sampling) and encouraged participation by live musicians. One memorable segment featured singer James Germain; congas, drums, keyboards and horns were also added to the mix at various times. Exciting to hear a DJ who actively promotes improvisation. 

Interlude 4: Village Noailles (Iron Craft) 

Village Noailles is an iron-working community located in Croix-des-Bouquets (about a 45 minute drive from the city) where oil drums are recycled into decorative objects, jewelry, and pieces of elaborate original art. In the course of visiting the individual artist's studios, the visitor can witness the act of metalworking; the sound of hammering and chiseling is everywhere. This truly is a community, with an active program of apprenticeship and training, and it is still growing. Nice to know that a purchase here gives direct support to the artist. 

Saturday's final concert was moved to the indoor venue at the Karibe Hotel—festival organizers were not willing to gamble on the weather a second time. Mexican guitarist Paco Renteria had been scheduled for a second appearance: this time Joël & Mushy Widmaier filled in on the opening slot. Martinique was represented by singer Ronald Tulle ft. Tony Chasseur with a band led by pianist/arranger Ronald Tulle ft. Tony Chasseur and featuring bassist Michel Alibo. The set began with a funk instrumental before Chasseur came onstage. The charismatic vocalist still ceded the spotlight to Alibo, who took a really hot solo on the third tune; and to Tulle, who played a striking unaccompanied piano solo on another instrumental tune built on a moto perpetuo figure. The set came to a climax with Chasseur leading an audience sing-along while walking down the aisle among the audience, which eventually led to a bebop scat vocal, with the rhythm section playing swing. 

The festival's closing set was by French fusion violinist Didier Lockwood, leading a quartet with drummer Loic Pontieux, bassist Linley Marthe, and guitarist Olivier Louvel. His dramatic opening tune grew to the kind of climax many artists reserve for the end of their set: a tremendous surge of speed and energy. They moved on to a bossa nova, then to a Duke Ellington cover that featured an unaccompanied looped violin opening, as well as a great guitar solo. Lockwood's ballad "Tiny Twins" included a lyrical bass solo. Lockwood picked up an electric six-string violin for his tour de force, an elaborate solo with a looper. He used the extended bass range to set up ostinato patterns, then layered all manner of sounds on top, including ocean and bird sound effects and the alien call phrase from the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Then he walked out into the audience, circulating among them until returning to the stage for the conclusion. That could have been a fitting ending to the set, but the band returned for a final blast of energy, a piece that included several duets among the group members. A terrific ending to the night's music, and to the 2017 Festival International de Jazz de Port-au-Prince. 

This is a festival that has had to overcome real adversity to survive: one major natural disaster, and many small difficulties in funding and logistics. While it must make do with fewer marquee names than comparable international jazz festivals, it has made a virtue of that limitation, by presenting up and coming artists from all over the world—and offering the opportunity to hear many of them more than once over the course of the week. It also serves as a showcase for many excellent local musicians, who more than hold their own with the visitors. 

And then there's the warm welcome of the Haitian people, and the amazing, contradictory place that is Port-au-Prince. Crowded, colorful, and home to a population finding creative ways to survive in a difficult economy. It's an unforgettable experience, and one I hope to repeat. 

Photo credits: Josue Azor (Didier Lockwood); Mark Sullivan (Haiti travel photos)

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