With Smart Bookings, Angrajazz Challenges Audiences

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Miguel Zenón steered past his most recent release, a lovely tribute to the work of Ismael Rivera, and headed right into muscular post-bop territory during the Angrajazz festival, which ran Oct 3-5 on Terceira Island in the Azores.

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The small consortium behind Angrajazz—the jazz festival that has been taking place on Terceira Island in the Azores since 1999—have crafted an ideal event, matching the unhurried pace and unpretentious attitudes of area residents. The organizers don’t try to shoehorn a theme or philosophy into the weekend proceedings; nor do they pack dozens of performers onto the bill, straining budgets and patience in the process.

Angrajazz is, at least in 2019, simple and near-perfect: three shows over three nights at a single venue, and on each bill, only two artists. That’s not a recipe for financial gain or sets heard ’round the world. But for jazz fans often run ragged by packed schedules and multiple locations, the model of modesty presented Oct. 3-5 on Terceira was more than welcome.

What this festival also has to brag about is its smart booking decisions. With names like Herbie Hancock, Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Jane Monheit popping up on previous years’ lineups, it’s clear that the organizers are, first and foremost, longtime fans of the genre and want to turn people on to the music. And if the enraptured crowds that filled the grand auditorium at the Centro Cultural e de Congressos de Angra do Heroísmo were any indication, the festival achieved its goal this weekend. The acts that performed this year—Parisian saxophonist Émile Parisien, Puerto Rico-born Miguel Zenón, Portuguese saxophonist João Mortágua and his group AXES, and Americans Frank Kimbrough and Allan Harris—presented a fine array of variations on jazz, from clean big-band compositions to messy avant-garde blasts.

It was the music’s more challenging aspects that were best served by the auditorium’s attentive audiences and impeccable acoustics. Parisien’s group, playing a set of material culled from its 2016 album Sfumato, filled the quiet room with waves of sound that changed and rolled like a weather formation tearing over a hillside. Parisien remained the focus as he spat out flowing runs of notes on his soprano, while his body, seemingly overtaken by the rest of the band’s spiky rhythms, contorted and wavered as if he were being tugged at and pulled by invisible strings. AXES, by contrast, couldn’t find a similar collective spirit with their woozy Lounge Lizards-like take on space-funk and Latin jazz. Their lineup boasts a pair of percussionists, but neither seemed able to surprise or move anyone listening, despite their attempts to dazzle through clownish facial expressions and showy body language.

Somewhere in the middle was the set by Kimbrough and his quartet that plucked from Monk’s Dreams, the group’s 2018 all-encompassing appraisal of Thelonious Monk’s known compositions. With a strong foundation from bassist Rufus Reid and drummer Billy Drummond, the pianist and saxophonist Scott Robinson shone new light on these jazz-canon jewels, finding new angles with which to start their deconstructed takes on classics like “Locomotive” and “’Round Midnight.” In doing so, they stayed true to Monk’s spirit by not letting the material languish in one arrangement or mood. Kimbrough’s clear love and appreciation for the songs shone through, even as he batted them around and peeled them apart to giddily gum up the works with his own liquid keyboard work.

Zenón, in contrast, steered right past his most recent release, the lovely tribute to the work of Ismael Rivera, and headed right into the more muscular post-bop territory that marked the start of his career as a bandleader. His quartet is an insular one, barely acknowledging the auditorium’s capacity crowd before rearing back and jumping into song after song. They closed ranks and spoke their own unique musical dialect borne of many years in New York, absorbing the sounds and spirit of the many cultures that cross paths on the city streets. Zenón’s upbringing in Puerto Rico played a part, as did the slap and groove of modern hip-hop, a touch of Eastern culture and the trundling swing of New Orleans.

Zenón and company didn’t wait to get rolling on the final night of the festival, if only because they were forced to make up for time lost when vocalist Harris let his rambling set run well past schedule. For the most part, Harris earned it by dint of his undeniable charm and a nicely chosen set that touched, primarily, on The Genius of Eddie Jefferson, his 2018 tribute to the late jazz singer who wrote lyrics for otherwise wordless tunes like “So What” and “Dexter Digs In.” But he overstayed his welcome with overly ingratiating stage banter and some song choices that felt flimsy when compared with the tensile strength built up by other Angrajazz performers. It was old-school supper club jazz in a room that felt ready to be taken farther and to more futuristic places. DB



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