Barcelona Fest Streamlines for the Times

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Snarky Puppy’s Michael League sports a pandemic-era mask while speaking during the Barcelona Jazz Festival.

(Photo: Courtesy Voll-Damm Barcelona Jazz Festival)

For its 53rd season, the Voll-Damm Barcelona Jazz Festival adjusted to the economic realities of COVID-19 by scaling down its practice of presenting concerts at different venues around the Catalonian capital. Instead, the festival held the majority of its autumn 2021 programs in the spacious, wood-walled auditorium of the city’s 184-year-old Conservatori Superior de Música del Liceu.

The auditorium also hosted a series of public master classes, conducted by a Who’s Who of international luminaries, among them Melissa Aldana, Jakob Bro, Chris Potter, Richard Bona, Vijay Iyer, Christian Sands, Ben Monder, Tomatito, Ambrose Akinmusire, Kenny Garrett and Chucho Valdés. These transpired in conjunction with the Conservatori’s jazz department, with a faculty that includes such Barcelona stalwarts as saxophonist Gorka Benitez, guitarists Jaume Llombart and Dani Pérez, bassist Horacio Fumero, singer Carmen Canela, and drummers David Xirgu and Gonzalo del Val (who heads the department).

During the week of Nov. 29, the Conservatori hosted concerts by four student-faculty or student-guest star ensembles. On night one, American expat tenor sax master Bill McHenry and Catalonian flamenco jazz avatar Marc Miralta (on vibraphone) led a group of mostly teenage undergraduates through a harmonically sophisticated program of off-the-beaten-track swingers of various tempos — including Joe Farrell’s “Moon Germs” and Charlie Parker’s “Buzzy” — and a few blue ballads. The members played local gigs leading up to the show with McHenry, and sounded ready for prime time. Trumpeter Victor Carrascosa, 17, matched McHenry idea for idea with strong tone. Estefania Chamorro, 19, guided the flow from the drum set with poise and keen dynamics, deploying vocabulary that channeled the spirits of Billy Higgins, Edward Blackwell and Paul Motian according to the dictates of the moment.

On the following evening, Toni Vaquer, a Global Jazz Institute alumnus and Danilo Pérez mentee, conducted the Liceu Gran Ensemble, a hybrid unit consisting of cellists, violinists and contrabassists from the classical department (situated stage left) with a brass and woodwind section from the jazz department (at stage right) and a rhythm section propelled by drummer Jeff Ballard, taught a master class before the concert. Perhaps because of the auditorium’s vibrant acoustics, the sound was soupy: The horns tended to drown out the strings. But the students navigated Vacquer’s challenging charts with aplomb and attention to the phrasings and attacks requisite to each genre.

Night three featured the Liceu BLAM (Black American Music) Collective, a 17-piece group that included two drums, several guitarists, a large horn section and five female singers. It was the brainchild of Michael League of Snarky Puppy, Bokanté and David Crosby fame, who’s lived in a small village an hour away from Barcelona for the past year, and joined the faculty in the fall (he also teaches bass and soup-to-nuts album production). For the concert, League’s students culled from some 35 songs representing the Black music scenes in Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and Texas, collectively creating arrangements, as well as a few numbers by guest singer Alex Dee. The show was joyous, ebullient and sloppy. The room acoustics did the music no favors; the instrumentalists needed work on phrasing; it was a challenge for singers to interpret English language lyrics with sufficient idiomatic nuance to convey the message. But the overall vibe was cathartic, and Sarah Lilu rendered Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” with a deep soulfulness.

The informed focus on the Afro-diasporic roots of jazz and pop that League and McHenry provide adds a consequential layer to the Conservatori’s curriculum. “The genres I’m most known for playing are Black American music genres,” League said. “This area is so far away from the culture that created the music that these students are studying in every respect — not only geographically, but attitudinally — that I thought it would be a good idea to create a ‘research through performance’ class. Even musicians from the United States often don’t know where certain artists come from. As a teacher, I learned a lot by diving into each region and making connections — a certain musician played in a certain band when they were young, then they had their own thing, then that influenced a group that I grew up with. You always study non-musical history based on geography. But in music, we don’t always do that, or aren’t as specific as we should be.”

“White people participated in and contributed to the music, but we don’t control it,” McHenry said. “We’re included because we know what Black musicians did first. I’ve imparted these beliefs to my students without going on and on about it; they have a clear idea of how I feel.” DB



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