Hersch, Sanchez, Porter Delve Deep at Portugal’s Funchal Jazz Festival

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Antonio Sanchez performed with his band Migration at the 2016 Funchal Jazz Festival, which took place July 14–17 in Madeira, Portugal.

(Photo: Renato Nunes)

For such a compact soirée, the Funchal Jazz Festival throws a mighty punch. Under the guidance of Artistic Director Paulo Barbosa, the 17th edition surveyed an expansive range of jazz idioms during its three-day span (July 14–17), including inventive 21st-century post-bop, exhilarating fusion, modernistic Portuguese art-house jazz and hip-swerving soul.

The festival’s streamlined program presented only two acts per night, allowing the artists to delve deeper into their respective repetoire.

Each night, artists held court to sizeable, enthusiastic audiences in the picturesque Parque de Santa Catarina in Funchal, the capital of Madeira, a mountainous Portuguese archipelago located aproximatiely 600 miles southwest of Lisbon.

After a moment of silence honoring recently departed 77-year-old Portuguese jazz pianist Tony Amaral, fellow pianist Fred Hersch opened the festival with an exqusite set that showcased his trio mates—drummer Eric McPherson and bassist John Hérbert—exploring some of his more recent originals and a few cherished standards.

After Hersch sculpted the crystalline, circular melody of “Whirl,” his 2008 dedication to ballet dancer Suzanne Farrell, he mapped out a cinematic melody, swept afloat by McPherson’s sparkling cymbal work and Hérbert’s sinewy yet supple contrapuntal bass lines. As Hersch’s writhing improvisation evolved, the rhythm section intensified the momentum, steering his lines with subtle rhythmic shifts and pulses.

Hersch continued with the fetching “Dream Of Monk,” a whimsical nod to Thelonious Monk on which the pianist reshapes the melody and loping gait of “Monk’s Dream.” For those who might still view Hersch as an austere disciple of Bill Evans, this performance showed a humorous, subversivley funkier side to his musicality, especially as he traded discreet, antiphonic phrases with McPherson underneath Hérbert’s blues-laden solo.

The trio revisited Monk at the end of the performance, with a rousing rendition of “In Walked Bud.” But the most suspensful moment in Hersch’s set was a starry-eyed reading of Ornette Coleman’s “Lonley Woman,” which slyly segued into Miles Davis’ “Nardis,” then transitioned back to Coleman’s lamenting ballad. Other hightlights included Hersch’s impressionistic ballad “Floating” and his poigant treatment of the Beatles’ “For No One.”

Antonio Sánchez and his band Migration kept the high caliber of Hersch’s set intact but shifted the evening’s vibe with hard-hitting jazz-fusion. The drummer focused his nearly two-hour set entirely on The Meridian Suite, a five-part tour-de-force that took on an Umberto Eco novelistic tone in terms of size and audacity.

Sánchez’s episodic piece integrated the propulsive virtuosity, melodic escapism and sonic onslaught of Return to Forever with the elusive rhythmic pulses of more recent bands like London’s 4Hero.

Alongside bassist Matt Brewer, Sánchez propelled the band with undeniable muscularity. But he consistently juxtaposed that strength with a supple precision and spatial awareness that didn’t overshadow his bandmates, all of whom received ample room in the spotlight.

John Escreet displayed amazing dexterity while navigating between acoustic piano and Fender Rhodes; he also contributed heavily to the music’s retro-futuristic texture, especially toward the end of “Pathways Of The Mind.”

The agile vocalist Thana Alexa, Sánchez’s wife, shared the frontline with tenor saxophonist Seamus Blake, who brought a Michael Brecker-like intensity during one of his extended essays. Together, they created solid unison lines.

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