By David Cázares | Sun Sentinel
Inside the decades-old Teatro Mella in the bustling Vedado neighborhood this past weekend, 19 photos of jazz legend Dizzy Gillespie greeted visitors and announced that Cuba remains a jazz mecca.
The exhibit’s scenes of Gillespie in Cuba were a fitting backdrop for Havana’s 22nd annual international jazz festival: Gillespie long admired the island’s jazz repertoire and its artists, with whom he often collaborated.
The island’s musicians, along with Canadian, Brazilian, Argentine and other artists, sought to emulate the legendary bandleader during the weekend. They delivered an impressive series of concerts dedicated to keeping jazz alive in a country where tough living conditions make performing, recording and touring difficult.
The opening gala at the Mella, featuring a big band of Cuban performers, set the festival’s tone with Afro-Cuban versions of standards such as Fly Me to the Moon, Thank You Very Much and Embraceable You. The band’s blaring horns, thundering percussion and improvisational solos made a highlight of a Spanish version of A Night in Tunisia, a song Gillespie popularized.
“Jazz is very important in Cuba, where there are people who know how to jam,” said bandleader and vocalist Bobby Carcasses.
This is a country that loves music and dance, and many Cubans say both help ease the pain of food shortages, power outages and inadequate public transportation. The island has more than 10,000 musicians who play everything from traditional Cuban genres to jazz, salsa, the fiery modern dance music called timba, hip-hop and reggaeton.
“Cubans are always listening to music or dancing,” said Jesus Casanova, a bartender at a Central Havana hotel. “I’m a jazz aficionado because of the way the artists create music through improvisation. It’s a genre that allows you to appreciate the best qualities of the person who is playing.”
Many of the Cuban musicians who played at the jazz festival are among the cream of the crop, artists whom the government allows to travel abroad. They included Roberto Fonseca, a pianist whose sextet captivated the Mella audience with a vibrant set of Afro-Cuban jazz fusion.
On Saturday, three musicians shared the Mella stage in a rare display of keyboard virtuosity and poetic lyricism. At one point, pianist Chucho Valdes playfully caressed the piano as acclaimed nueva trova singer Pablo Milanes and Brazilian singer Ivan Lins traded stanzas in Spanish and Portuguese.
A few hours later, performers gathered in the nearby Almadeo Roldan Theater, a modern venue that could be mistaken for any other in the modern world, except for colorful wall paintings of Santeria deities.
Valdes, son of the extraordinary pianist Bebo Valdes, first sat down for a piano duo with his son, Achuchito Valdes, then performed with his quartet, displaying blazing speed, impeccable precision and improvisational skills.
What followed was perhaps a first: a performance by 10 Cuban saxophone players presented by saxophonist Cesar Lopez, leader of Habana Ensemble. The players were the Havana Sax Quartet and Lopez’s own group, one of Cuba’s most popular contemporary jazz bands; the repertoire included Juan Tizol’s Caravan and John Coltrane’s A Moment’s Notice.
Festival audiences largely were Cuban, but some concertgoers came from Canada, Europe and the United States.
Some Americans did not want to discuss their presence, given U.S. rules against travel to Cuba. One man from New York said it was outrageous that U.S. policy made it difficult for American musicians to participate.
Singers Byron Motley and Lola Pfeiffer were the only Americans on the program.
Motley, who lives in Los Angeles, was on his second trip to the island, performing One Day I’ll Fly Away and Lush Life on Sunday at the open-air Casa de la Cultura.
“I fell in love with the music and the culture,” he said. “Just look around and you feel how warm the people are and how immersed they are in their culture.”
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