Jazz Artists Foster Cultural Connections in Guadalajara
Nicholas Payton was surprisingly soft spoken at an afternoon discussion during Guadalajara’s Encuentro Internacional De Jazz En Jalisco (International Jazz Encounter in Jalisco), held Aug. 2–11. He performed on Aug. 4 in front of 2,000 people at an outdoor space behind a convention center, Foro Expo, in Mexico’s second largest city. But that talk inside the hall a day earlier revealed just as much about his musical philosophy and the cultural connections that this event’s presenting organization, Tónica, promotes. Now in its seventh year, this festival puts as much emphasis on its discussions and classes as its concerts.
When the outspoken Payton discussed his Black American Symphony project, he mentioned his belief that while anybody can play jazz, they must also understand its ties to African American culture. As an analogy, he stated that while Germans love mariachi music, they also acknowledge that it comes from Mexico. He also talked about the ties between the brass band music of New Orleans and Mexican banda. Taking it deeper, the Crescent City native added, “In New Orleans, we celebrate birth, and we celebrate death—like here.”
Onstage, Payton, singer José James, organist Joey DeFrancesco and several Mexican musicians showed that this cultural empathy today includes a shared affinity for the kind of jazz that celebrates its connections to keyboard-driven contemporary r&b. Leading his trio, Payton has continued to develop his concept of simultaneous doubling on trumpet and keyboards. He makes it all work by balancing sustained trumpet notes and unexpected chord changes, especially on his own “The Backward Step” and an interpretation of Erykah Badu’s “Window Seat.”
James’ cool delivery created a tense juxtaposition with the darkness of such songs as “Sword And Gun.” DeFrancesco included a smoldering rendition of the popular Mexican bolero “Sabor A Mí.” Unlike, say, a blues or rock band that tries to win over a Windy City audience by playing “Sweet Home Chicago,” there was nothing contrived about this performance. The thousands in the audience knew it, too, as they cheered and sang the lyrics.
Singer Iraida Noriega, from Mexico City, fronted a band at Foro Expo that had a similar approach to groove. She brought together elements from early ’70s jazz-r&b hybrids (sometimes recalling Esther Phillips’ CTI-era LPs) and more recent hip-hop-based spoken-word exchanges, including some back-and-forth with guest emcee Eric El Niño—who also revealed his jazz loyalty with the words “A Love Supreme” tattooed on his leg.
Noriega’s vocals glided seamlessly between the foreground and background, while sounding continuously engaged with the rhythm section. While Noriega featured mostly relaxed tempos, Guadalajara’s Troker delivered an aggressive take on contemporary fusion, with a laptop and keyboard answering each guitar line. But the driving dance rhythms never overwhelmed the complex interplay between trumpeter Gilberto Cervantes (a Tónica co-organizer) and saxophonist Arturo Santillanes. This set presented a dynamic update of a sound that the Brecker Brothers started more than 35 years ago.
Other groups at the festival are successfully combining different parts of jazz with their own country’s musical traditions to create something original. One such band is the Guadalajara-based Smoke Rings Quartet (now numbering five musicians), which opened for vocalist Kurt Elling at the gorgeous, historic Teatro Degollado. Their set began with a stylish take on Django Reinhardt-era Gypsy swing, with cellist Ulises Lopez taking on the traditional role of the bass. But they gradually wove in various Mexican idioms—from son jarocho to ranchera—before Lopez and trumpeter Lmyllo turned things inside-out with startling lines that were dissonant yet ultimately lyrical.