Experimentation and a Mastery of Music at Funchal Jazz Festival

  I  

Madeira is a volcanically formed, mountainous archipelago of sweeping hillsides and winding streets chockablock with stucco-roofed housing that from sea level appear as an endless tableau of neighborhoods, carved out well before the dictates of urban planning. Located in the Atlantic Ocean, southwest of Portugal, Funchal is the island capital and counts a population of about 110,000.

Located midway down a prodigious hill, the Funchal Jazz Festival, which ran July 11-13, is set at the Parque de Santa Catarina, a public garden at the center of town. Rows of white folding chairs, ample stone-wall seating on the side and plenty of lawn space for blankets and terra firma seating blend to form an alluring scene, one that encouraged patrons to bring their children to experience the joys of jazz.

Saxophonist Ben Wendel’s Seasons Band kicked off Thursday with a remarkable crew—pianist Aaron Parks, drummer Kendrick Scott, guitarist Gilad Hekselman and bassist Matt Brewer—spinning intricate and intimately cogent original tales. Any band with Scott at the tubs starts with a creative leg up. Wendell’s latest project, The Seasons, was the subject matter, each piece reflecting a seasonal perspective and a raft of influences.

Crowd favorite Gregory Porter brought down the house with his closing set that night. The vocalist’s storytelling proclivity transcends language barriers, going straight to the heart wherever he performs his lyrical alchemy. A highlight was a poignant piece relating timeless lessons imparted by Porter’s mother to his 7-year old son, who romped the lawn stageside. Tenor saxophonist Tivon Pennicott was a consistent delight.

Friday evening opened with Portugal’s inventive accordionist João Barradas’ Portrait, an international unit featuring Dutch saxophonist Ben Van Gelder. Barradas is not merely a colorist, his dexterity and improvisational gifts are impressive, however his composerly set yielded very little joy and didn’t catch fire—until the closer. The bandleader spent a bit too much time playing his accordion with a Fender Rhodes sound, which detracted from the broad range of the instrument Joe Zawinul once declared the “original synthesizer.”

Terence Blanchard again affirmed later on Friday his place in the upper echelon of modern trumpeters with his centennial tribute to Art Blakey. This edition of his electrified E-Collective adeptly blended aggressive updates on Messengers’ classics with modernisms. Special guests included drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts, who consistently delivered the spirit of Blakey’s explosive drive, and tenorist Jean Toussaint, who’d been part of the ’80s Jazz Messengers frontline with Blanchard and Donald Harrison.

Blakey book interpretations included the opener “Ugetsu,” “One By One” and “Dat Dere.” All were successfully reimagined and cannily arranged by bass guitarist David Ginyard, who played the E-Collective pieces and blended seamlessly with acoustic bassist Tabari Lake on some of his Blakey arrangements. Another of the younger contributors was pianist Gerald Clayton, on both acoustic and Rhodes. Hearing Watts’ roiling African echoes with Blanchard’s often-thrilling horn in either context was genuinely rewarding. The closing “Soldier,” which Blanchard dedicated to social workers everywhere, was encored by Messengers’ anthem “Moanin’.”

Saturday opened with the sumptuous tenor saxophone tone of Melissa Aldana. She achieved a kind of triangular band interplay among drummer Kush Abadey, guitarist Lage Lund and bassist Josh Ginsburg, Aldana planted in the middle. Her gorgeous intro to “Polka Dots And Moonbeams,” the set’s lone standard, was a festival highlight that Dexter Gordon surely would have approved of.

One of the queens of song, Dianne Reeves, closed the festival Saturday with a typically exuberant and brilliant set that nearly lifted the audience into orbit. She captured their hearts, singing renditions of Brazilian songs in Portuguese; on one, she invited Aldana back to solo. Her versatile longtime guitarist, Romero Lubambo, was one obvious inspiration for the Brazilian immersion.

Funchal Artistic Director Paulo Barbosa skillfully built this program, pairing seeming opposites—experimentation and original music more overt in opening acts; experienced mastery and global notoriety hallmarks of headliners—making the festival a jewel in Portugal’s cultural offerings. DB