Barcelona’s Jazz Festival Thrives at 50


Chucho Valdés (second from left) at the Rumba Para Bebo concert

(Photo: Lorenzo Duaso/Barcelona Voll-Damm Jazz Festival)

As always, Catalan and Spanish musicians will be featured prominently. Bassist-bandleader Joan Chamorro’s singular Sant Andreu Jazz Band, whose personnel, ages 10 to 17, navigate the jazz tradition with exceptional panache and freshness, make their annual appearance with a concert called All The Colors of Jazz, tracing the festival’s history. Chamorro also presents a tribute to Dexter Gordon—who played the festival in 1971—in conjunction with Gordon’s widow and biographer, Maxine Gordon.

Sant Andreu Jazz Band’s best-known alumna is trumpeter, alto saxophonist and vocalist Andrea Motis. A regular at BJF since adolescence, she will perform in duo with local pianist Ignasi Terraza (who performs in five concerts altogether) and in trio with Terraza and Paco DeLucia’s former harmonicist Antonio Serrano. Also representing Catalonia is the singer-pianist Mar Vilaseca, performing solo at Luz De Gas, an extraordinary hall fromLa Belle Époque, and pianist Marco Mezquida in the Pieris Trio with bassist Jesper Bodilsen and drummer Martin Anderson, both from Denmark, at L’Auditori Sala.

When booking artists from the U.S. and Europe, Cararach doesn’t fetishize exclusivity. “I don’t like festivals that pay a lot of money for ‘special things,’” he said. “Musicians need to survive, they need to travel, and they need to play as many shows as possible. We’re in Europe in the fall, so we have a lot of artists who are playing other European festivals.” Fitting into that category in 2018 are John Scofield, Randy Brecker, Aaron Parks’ Little Big and Bill Frisell solo.

A more specialized and larger-scale event features Brad Mehldau playing a new piano concerto with the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra, which has co-commissioned the work with several other orchestras. “I love classical music,” said Cararach, who used to write about opera. He referred to a Nov. 10 duo concert by saxophonist Dave Liebman and pianist Marc Copland. “I also like jazz as chamber music, like presenting a quartet by Beethoven or Brahms or Schumann,” he said. “But what I like about a jazz concert is that even when the musician’s aesthetic is very clear, you don’t know what will happen until they start to play.”

Chamber music of a different sort transpires Dec. 1 at Conservatori del Liceu when Cuban-born pianist Pepe Rivero and bassist Javier Colina interpret the music that Colina recorded with maestro pianist Bebo Valdés on Lágrimas Negras in 2003. This is one leg of a tripartite celebration of the Mambo King’s centennial that also includes a performance by Cuban pianist Harold López-Nussa and Chucho Valdés’ opening-night event.

The release of Lágrimas Negras coincided with Cararach’s appointment as artistic director. He’d established a personal connection with Bebo after interviewing him in 1996, and immediately decided to present a concert around that album and Bebo’s We Could Make Such Beautiful Music Together with Federico Britos.

“I started at the top—my story after that is a complete downgrade,” joked Cararach, who has made it a point to focus on Cuban musicians—most notably the Valdés family—in his programming ever since. “When I have Cuban musicians on the stage, you can like or dislike their aesthetic, but what is sure is they don’t take prisoners. So, Cuban jazz and Cuban popular music have been important to the festival for the past 15 years.”

Cararach said that the qualities Bebo Valdés embodied in his musical production inform his attitude to booking the festival. “Bebo’s faith in music was amazing,” he said. “He was open to all kinds of sounds. He played jazz, of course, and Afro-Cuban music, but he loved everything from Barbra Streisand to Rachmaninoff. And he was very respectful to the audience.”

He compared Bebo Valdés to Duke Ellington, who played the very first concert of the Barcelona Jazz Festival on Nov. 3, 1966, while touring Europe with his orchestra and Ella Fitzgerald, and performed Sacred Concerts in Barcelona in 1969 and 1973. In his memoir, Music Is My Mistress, Ellington mentioned his admiration for the choir he encountered in 1969 at Santa Maria Del Mar, Barcelona’s old cathedral.

“People who met Ellington told me he was an angel,” Cararach said. “One guy who sang told me, ‘Duke Ellington touched me,’ 50 years after the fact. I understand this sensation very well, because I saw Bebo Valdés do this with everybody. Bebo was de facto our godfather; this is the only festival where he played all his projects in his last years.”

When Bebo Valdés died in 2013, Cararach and Chucho Valdés fulfilled his request that a party be thrown where attendees, rather than weep, should eat chocolate and drink rum. Under Chucho’s direction, the program, titled Rumba Para Bebo, a truly surreal event, spanned the entirety of Bebo’s interests. “Chucho is now the festival’s godfather,” Cararach said. “He does a new project for us every year.”

In 2017 at the Palau, Chucho Valdés played duo piano with Gonzalo Rubalcaba, his “heir to the throne,” as part of a European tour. It was Rubalcaba’s third consecutive appearance at BJF, a run that began with his own Monvínic Experience in 2015. Rubalcaba observed that the life story of his maternal grandfather, surnamed Fonseca, who followed the path of many Catalonians by emigrating to Cuba almost a century ago, connects him personally to Barcelona. “This festival brings to the audience the most contemporary voices of Cuban music today,” Rubalcaba said. “But what makes this event special is the city itself. It’s the music, the architecture, the food, the wine, the energy.”

“I like to compare the festival to the spirit of Barcelona,” Cararach said. “Barcelona is a capital for wine lovers and food lovers, and it’s important to understand that wine and food work very well together with jazz. Everyone is welcome to the table. But this table is our table—local products and our own taste.” DB

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June 2019
Jeremy Pelt
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