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


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)

Two of Portugal’s finest musicians—singer Maria João and pianist Mário Laginha—opened the festival’s second night. The two musicians have built a rich and varied body of work over the past two decades, and their bracing chemistry showed throughout their spectacular set.

João possesses one of the most otherworldly voices on the international jazz scene. She sang through a wildly expressive and piercing soprano that often quivered in an operatic fashion. But she displayed the rhythmic acumen of a modern bop pianist. She’s also an incredible writer and interpreter of lyrics. João animated her lyrics and wordless lines with zany, childlike chirps, hiccups, sighs and cries that would saddle lesser talents. She underscored that trait with a mesmerizing emotional persuasiveness.

Laginha’s refined approach was the ideal foil for João’s carefree spirit as the two led an equally commanding band, comprised of bassist Bernardo Moreira, drummer Alexandre Frazáo and accordionist João Frade.

Spirited songs like the dazzling “Fidgety” showcased João and Laginha’s mastery of labyrinthine lines, but softer moments like the plaintive “Parrots And Lions,” the dramatic “Músculo” and the wondrous “This Time” proved most seductive because of their enigmatic splendor.

If João and Laginha delivered the festival’s most spellbinding performance, alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa followed up with the festival’s most intense. Focusing on music from Bird Calls (ACT)—which topped the Jazz Album category in the 2015 DownBeat Critics Poll—Mahanthappa fronted an intrepid quintet, powered with volatile energy and unrelenting momentum by drummer Rudy Royston and bassist Thomson Kneeland.

Mahanthappa shared the frontline with trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, who proved to be an ideal match and counterpart. O’Farrill fashioned a tart tone with which he enlivened forceful ribbons of improvisations, marked by fractured riffs. Even though songs like the album’s title track and the plummeting “On The DL” were built upon musical ideas from Charlie Parker, Mahanthappa and O’Farrill more often evoked the spirit of Coleman and Don Cherry.

Bobby Avey’s intriguing pianism also held its own magic; he accompanied the frontline with jarring harmonies that often gave way to imaginative improvisations and striking rhythmic shards.

The ensemble retained an almost unforgiving veracity throughout the set, but the music did simmer down momentarily with the haunting “Talin Is Thinking,” which Mahanthappa dedicated to the victims of the recent attacks in Nice, France, which occurred the night before, as well as the mesmerizing “Gopuram.”

At the beginning of the final night, Laginha appeared again—this time with a revised edition of Sexteto de Jazz de Lisboa, a group that formed in 1984 but released only one album, Ao Encontro, four years later. With its three frontline horns, consisting of tenor saxophonist Edgar Caramelo, trumpeter Tomás Pimentel and newcomer alto saxophonist Ricardo Toscano, the ensemble’s phrasing and melodic improvisations faintly recalled the hard-bop music heard on Blue Note Records’ mid-1960s catalog, but with a more water-colored lushness.

Laginha and the rhythm section of bassist Francisco Brito—another newcomer—and drummer Mário Barreiros enabled the group to escape hard-bop conventions by supplying a breezy swing that was nonetheless intricate and invigorating. Compositions like the strutting “Véspera” and the enchanting “TOAPS,” which could have easily fit on Wayne Shorter’s 1985 LP Atlantis, illustrated the power of Laginha’s writing, while the funky Afro-Brazilian funk-meets-bop groove of “Muda” and the equally danceable “4+3” demonstrated Pimentel’s compositional flair.

The incomparable singer Gregory Porter ended the festival on a high note with his patented blend of soul, jazz, and gospel. Fronting a lineup with longtime musical director Chip Crawford on piano, Jahmal Nicols on bass (replacing Aaron James), Emanuel Harrold on drums and Tivon Pennicott on tenor saxophone, Porter’s booming baritone commanded the stage, beginning with “Holding On,” a hit from his latest disc, Take Me To The Alley (Blue Note).

Harrold shifted the rhythmic undertow of “On My Way To Harlem” with more of a skittering drum-n-bass flow that at times sounded rushed and out of sync. Nevertheless, the ensemble found its footing better on ballads such as the sobering “Take Me To The Alley” and “Consequence Of Love,” as well as on medium-tempo gems like “Musical Genocide” and smoldering take of the Temptations’ “Papa Was A Rolling Stone.” After a rousing standing ovation, Porter treated the audience to his yearning ballad “Hey Laura” and his riveting “1960 What?”

Fans still craving jazz after each festival’s closing act could catch the energizing jam sessions at Scat, Funchal’s top jazz bar and restaurant. There, a young, Lisbon-based quartet led by Toscano played a variety of jazz standards. But the thrills really began when fest participants such as Blake, Brewer, O’Farrill and Royston joined in the fray.

Royston amazed the packed house with an extensive drum solo, while Nicols, Pennicott, and Harrold brought the funk, especially when it closed the house on an early Sunday morning with a feisty jazz makeover of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition.”

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