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)

The Voll-Damm Barcelona International Jazz Festival, which launched in 1966, is billing 2018 as its 50th anniversary. In making this decision, the festival was not inspired by the Surrealist provocations of Salvador Dali, a son of Figueres, 85 miles north of Catalonia’s capital city, or the perspectival mojo of Pablo Picasso, who spent a formative decade in Barcelona more than a century ago, and contributed an extraordinary cohort of works to that city’s Museu Picasso. The reason is more prosaic. As Festival Artistic Director Joan Anton Cararach explained, the death of Spain’s dictator, Generalissimo Francisco Franco, in 1975, “led to the first, let’s say, burst-out of democracy in Spain, and no one in Barcelona was interested in promoting jazz in those years—so the festival was discontinued in 1977, 1978 and 1979.”

The festival revived in 1980, operating under various leadership until 1989, when The Project, a recently formed music promotion company owned by Tito Ramoneda and Joan Roselló, took the festival private. In 2003, one year after the S.A. Damm beer company signed on as a consequential sponsor, therefore providing financial stability, Ramoneda and Roselló hired Cararach, then employed as a professor of journalism, arts journalist and translator.

Cararach said that The Project organizes more than 400 concerts a year. Many feature Spanish pop artists and, in 2018, international stars like Bob Dylan and Ringo Starr. “With pop music, for 24 hours’ work, you make 25 times more money than for a two-month festival,” Cararach said. Cushioned by these profits, BJF has expanded from 27 concerts in 2003, when Cararach took the reins, to 100–120 events.

He acknowledged that festering political tensions between Catalonia and Spain pose logistical complexities. “We had a general strike last year, and Chick Corea, for instance, was stopped for four hours on a highway in Catalonia,” Cararach said. “But we are surviving, because The Project has a clear vision about its pop music business and all the things it does. Sometimes, I make the joke that I am the guy losing money for The Project, so they can save on annual taxes.”

The quality of the “50th anniversary” roster makes it hard to discern any difficulties. BJF offered concerts last summer by stars like Pat Metheny, Snarky Puppy, Cécile McLorin Salvant and R+R=NOW. The official fall season begins Oct. 26 with a concert at which Cuban piano maestro Chucho Valdés revisits his 1973 classic Jazz Bata under the serene, implacable gaze of 18 statues of muses looming over the stage of Barcelona’s incomparable, 110-year-old Palau de la Música Catalana.

The next day, Cuba’s folkloric Grupo Compay Segundo will perform at BARTS, a converted theater space, and The Bad Plus will play the Conservatori del Liceu, a modern auditorium at Barcelona’s primary music school, which hosts the Billy Childs Quartet on Oct. 29 and the Mark Turner-Ethan Iverson duo on Oct. 30. Meanwhile, on Oct. 28, French pianist-composer-audiovisual artist Chassol plays solo at L’Auditori Sala 2, a modern 586-seat space that specializes in classical music. A half-hour earlier, Tribalistas, comprising all-star Brazilian vocalists Marisa Monte, Arnaldo Antunes and Carlinhos Brown backed by a strings and percussion quartet, begins its show a few miles northeast at Auditori del Fòrum.

The variety of styles and venues during opening week reflects, in microcosm, Cararach’s aesthetic and curatorial philosophy. “What we do is like a classical season—one artist, one venue, one night,” Cararach said. “It’s not made for tourists, but for people who live in Barcelona. We have to sell tickets, so we represent many different tastes. Sometimes, we present concerts for 4,000 people, but usually for, let’s say, 100 to 2,000. That’s what makes the festival so interesting—you can always choose your thing.

“People don’t like this word ‘eclectic,’ but I think ‘eclectic’ is the word that defines us. I try to eat and drink everything, and I try to listen to any kind of music.”

Cararach—whom Bad Plus bassist Reid Anderson, a one-time Barcelona resident, described as “a foodie and oenophile of the highest order”—finds ingenious ways to connect the jazz programming to Barcelona’s efflorescent wine culture. For example, each year since 2010, he’s presented “The Monvínic Experience” in conjunction with the renowned wine bar Monvínic, in which a musician is tasked with improvising a recital in response to eight separate wines for patrons who pay €80 for the sybaritic privilege of sniffing, tasting and consuming them.

Kurt Rosenwinkel, who performed the first Monvínic Experience (and participated in the last of five “Blindfold/Winefold Tests” that DownBeat conducted at Monvínic between 2011 and 2015), recalls it as “a special, magical occasion.” He was touring Europe with his trio; to prepare him, Cararach sent the bottles to a restaurant in Paris that matched the vintages with a multi-course luncheon. “I didn’t know where Monvínic was, or who was going to be there,” Rosenwinkel said. “When I showed up, there were 100 placemats set with fine silverware, and a well-made, thick cardboard booklet that described all the wines. I enjoyed every minute.”

Rosenwinkel cited the “passion” of the audiences he encountered when residing in Barcelona during the 1990s. “They want your heart and soul, your blood and sweat and tears and everything else when you play,” he said. “Every time I play the festival, I feel that passion and connection to the audience.”

No idiom more palpably conveys those primal qualities than flamenco, represented at this year’s Monvínic Experience event on Nov. 20 by vocalist Mayte Martin (a week after her Nov. 13 concert at BARTS), conjuring responses to selections by female winemakers. Also performing in proximity are eminent gitano singer Diego el Cigala at the Palau on Nov. 14, and guitar virtuosos Tomatito (Palau, Nov. 16) and Vicente Amigo (Nov. 21, at Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona’s opera hall).

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