Playing It Safe

This was the JVC Jazz Festival's first year here, but the sounds were nothing new

When the lineup of the first-ever JVC Jazz Festival-Miami Beach was announced, excitement and a certain wariness gripped South Florida jazz fans: anticipation for the possibility of luring topnotch talent promised by the prestigious JVC name; caution about the chances of enduring yet another mediocre musical mixed bag. Just a few months had passed since the first-ever Miami Jazz Festival barely succeeded in weaving its spell of mostly smooth songs and Latin rhythms (David Sanborn, Jonathan Butler, Poncho Sanchez, and Israel "Cachao" Lopez were among the acts) in Bayfront Park for two days. Now, four months later, another production devoted to jazz would descend on these parts. The five-day affair ballooned with programming that included four events (three straight-ahead, one Latin jazz) at the Van Dyke Café; a free Latin-jazz concert headlined by saxophonist Gato Barbieri outdoors on South Beach; a Songwriters in the Round session and Cuban jazz jam at The Forge; a Mother's Day brunch featuring a Cuban chanteuse at the National Hotel; plus a long-planned Miami Light Project show by minimalist composer Philip Glass and Gambian griot Foday Musa Suso; and an already arranged extravaganza called Temple of Mambo at the Jackie Gleason Theater of Performing Arts (later canceled). So many shows, so little time. And ultimately so little diversity deriving from such a rich musical genre.

Based in New York City, the creators of the event, Festival Productions, Inc., have plenty of experience in the programming and producing department. Headed by veteran impresario George Wein, best known for founding outdoor music extravaganzas with 1954's Newport Jazz Festival, the company puts on thriving JVC Jazz Festivals around the world. Some of its other credits include the 32-year-old New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (Jazz Fest to buffs); the Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl; and even Ben & Jerry's Folk Festival-Newport (folk!). Upcoming is the JVC Jazz Festival New York, set for two weeks in mid-June. All across the city, 27 venues will host more than 60 events showcasing a variety of artists including Keith Jarrett, Steve Turre, the North Mississippi All-Stars, Blossom Dearie, La Sonora Poncena, Diana Krall, Cesaria Evora, the Afro-Cuban All Stars, Bebel Gilberto, and the Paquito D'Rivera Ensemble. "We always program the JVC Jazz Festival with a wide range of fans in mind, but we undoubtedly have something for everyone this year," claims bigwig Wein about the Big Apple edition on the Festival Productions Website. Too bad the same couldn't be said about Miami Beach's fest. Granted the New York version is 29 years old. The embryonic Miami event, while ambitious in terms of variety of venues, certainly can be said to have been less adventurous in artistic scope.

To wit: playing it safe with its beach acts. A five-hour Saturday concert yielded openers Paye and the Latin Jazz Crew performing original tunes to a rather sparse, lackadaisical crowd. More listeners plopped themselves on the sand to hear eclectic pianist Hilton Ruiz. Backed by drums, bass, and congas, he took the stage, exhibiting more than his share of flash. Pounding the keys of his grand piano vigorously and then playing gently on classics such as Cuban percussionist's Mongo Santamaria's spirited "Afro Blue," Ruiz even jumped off his bench at one point and began to clap his hands, attempting to rouse the audience, to no avail. (Perhaps the lone exception: the seated shirtless nipple-ringed older man who insisted on voguing.) Had they heard it all before, rendered nearly as well?

Of course they had heard it -- often. And someone they'd probably heard just as many times was the headliner: Gato Barbieri. Early in his career the Argentina-born tenor saxophonist played alongside fellow countryman Lalo Schifrin in his orchestra in the Fifties. Oddly enough the 66-year-old Barbieri garnered much attention internationally following his performance at the 1972 Montreux Jazz Festival, accompanied by major figures such as percussionist Nana Vasconcelos and pianist Lonnie Liston Smith. Sporting his signature black fedora and flowing white scarf, Barbieri began his set with dissonant skronking, disturbing wailing, and occasional chanting, which he attributed to the seemingly endless smooth jazz song "Bolivia." Underlying the ill-advised initial choice was the insistent bass guitar, subtle drums, plinking piano, and the striking sound of the skinny Brazilian stringed instrument called the berimbau. Picking up the pace in the next tune, Barbieri, between skillful blows of his horn, had more tributes for the ladies, yelping: "Heeeeeey, Susy!" and letting out a bloodcurdling shriek. "Michelle," a tune in honor of his late first wife, earned hearty applause from the audience. Afterward the musician, who had been addressing the crowd exclusively in Spanish, broke into English and claimed: "I have many albums, and I can play everything, so I try to." As long as he ceased the hair-raising wails, it really wouldn't have mattered what he played. His edge may have been somewhat dulled by age. His musical chops, albeit a bit slower, nevertheless were intact. After some overly long improvs, Barbieri at last broke into what the crowd wanted to hear: Carlos Santana's "Europa." Brought down slightly in tempo, the sax-heavy standard, Barbieri's most recognized interpretation, was punctuated by a final "heeeeey" in the first few bars.

As that "hey" wafted through the air, a few blocks north on Lincoln Road the world-music wonders Philip Glass and Foday Musa Suso were wrapping up. At the same time young pianist Bill Charlap sat at the keys for the first of two sets upstairs at the Van Dyke.

Over the last three days, the room had played host to packed crowds for saxman Bobby Watson, flautist Dave Valentin with percussionist Sammy Figueroa, and pianist Cedar Walton with saxophonist Vincent Herring. Sharing the stage with Charlap this night were drummer/trumpet player Barry Reis, drummer/vocalist Grady Tate, and bass player/Van Dyke musical director Don Wilner. While seemingly enthusiastic patrons crowded the tables and stood three-deep at the bar, it seemed no matter how good the music was (and it often was sublime), many of them couldn't -- or wouldn't -- keep their mouths shut. That despite early admonitions from Wilner that the Van Dyke possessed a "no-talking policy." Perhaps it's the peril of listening in a place that advocates a "yes, drinking policy" where boozehounds consider the entertainment nothing more than background music. A shame for them. Moments of quiet occurred when Tate emerged from behind his kit and wrapped his lustrous baritone around "It Might as Well Be Spring," playfully breaking into a strain of "Let It Snow," and then scatted up a storm during Miles Davis's "All Blues." Wilner, Reis, and Charlap added delicate tasteful touches. Alone and unbridled on solos such as "Body and Soul," Charlap truly sparkled, breaking out from the constraints of his recordings. Son of a Broadway composer and a big-band singer, the 34-year-old pianist has an almost instinctual sense when it comes to interpreting standards. That was patently obvious during the evening's shining moment, as Tate crooned Billy Strayhorn's poignant "Lush Life," and an astonishing silence overtook the room.

Looking back on the five days, Festival Productions wags revel in what they consider an auspicious first fest and pledge more in the future. The mission is audience-building, a task that can take a good five to seven years. Catering to a younger crowd and incorporating more versatile programming also are priorities. Secure in the knowledge that if they throw a festival, people are sure to come, perhaps when organizers consider future musical offerings for oh-so-Latin Miami they'll adhere to the credo of eccentric Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, who grandly pronounced, "Give 'em what they never knew they wanted."

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