Traveling to Panama in late January is pleasant duty, even if doing so from the Crescent City where the weather has been quite inviting for we northeastern transplants. Arriving there for the 5th annual Panama Jazz Festival along with students from the Thelonious Monk Institute’s graduate studies program at Loyola University was a literal trip to the vibrant heart of the festival. Pianist-composer Danilo Perez, who spent an engrossing week in residence with the Monk students last fall, produces this festival as a true labor of love through his Danilo Perez Foundation. And one mustn’t forget the stellar and loving work of Danilo’s longtime manager Robin Thomchin or his spouse, alto saxophonist Patricia Zarate who ran the education component of the festival, in this equation.
The festival has become such an integral part of Panama’s cultural calendar that it has been embraced in a somewhat unprecedented way. Amidst the festival’s weeklong education tract, concerts, and jam sessions members of the press and guests were invited to a lovely afternoon reception at the White House, the residence of the Panamanian prez. That afternoon President Juan Carlos Navaro took a step that one wishes more heads of state would make — he announced that the Panama Jazz Festival would henceforth be a line item in the government’s annual budget! The announcement brought a bit of knee-weakness and tears of joy to Danilo who had joined him on the dias. Surely this was the culmination of Perez’s herculean efforts and was a well-deserved capstone to this 5th anniversary festival celebration. But as Danilo well knows, now the real work begins.
The Monk students joined educators from Berklee College of Music, which has been providing scholarships to deserving Panamanian music students, New England Conservatory of Music and a NEC student ensemble in providing daytime education services to an eager cadre of thirsty aspiring musicians whose energy and desire to learn this music was inspiring on many levels. This education mission defines the Panama Jazz Festival, Danio Perez’s yeoman effort at developing a real jazz culture in his native land. There are many in the U.S. who could learn real lessons from what is happening here in Panama.
Beginning with Wednesday evening’s gala at the beautiful National Theatre, a classic opera house, the following evenings were given over to concert performances and jam sessions. The gala, a dress-up affair attended by many government officials and festival sponsors, was dedicated to the bolero, or balladic style of Panamanian musical expression. The evening’s highlights both featured Perez at their centers, his only performances of the festival. What a joy it was to see Danilo Perez Sr. emoting warmly alongside his son, with Patricia Zarate bending her alto obbligatos joining the two strings-accompaniment. Later that evening Danilo played a beautiful duo with Panama’s minister of tourism the great salsero Ruben Blades, who was a supportive festival presence throughout the week.
Thursday and Friday evening were concert performances on the immense Atlapa convention center stage. The huge draftiness of that venue pointed out one of the festival’s growing pains: the need for a more mid-sized venue. Alto saxophonist Tia Fuller, who along with her explosive drummer Kim Thompson was fresh off a tour as part of pop star Beyonce’s all-woman backing band, literally raised the roof with her burning quartet. Fuller and Thompson were joined by the leader’s sister Shawne Royston on piano and Miriam Sullivan on bass. The audience was immediately smitten with the fierceness of the quartet’s performance of a neatly balanced program of mainly originals.
Blues and jazz singer Catherine Russell was given the daunting task of following Tia’s bristling quartet, which in lesser hands could have proven a disaster. But Ms. Russell sang a fine set of old wine in new bottles, including such rarely covered chestnuts as Dakota Staton’s classic "Late Late Show", a buttery rendition of Hoagy Carmichael’s "New Orleans", dipped into the book of Ella Fitzgerald with Chick Webb for "All Night Long," and threw in some Pops Armstrong with "Back ‘O Town Blues." She’s a good storyteller and was enraptured all week long by this wonderful journey to her ancestral homeland: her father is the great Panamanian bandleader Luis Russell, a noted Armstrong associate, and her mother is the bassist Carline Ray from the Original Sweethearts of Rhythm; so Catherine Russell is from royal stock indeed.
Friday evening at Atlapa brought mallet man Dave Samuels’ Caribbean Jazz Project and guitarist Stanley Jordan to the stage. Samuels is playing a lot of marimba these days, alternating that elongated keyboard nicely with his vibes work. He was particularly pungent on Denzil Best’s "Bemsha Swing" from the book of Monk, and a "Stolen Moments" workout, with guest Panamanian percussionist Ricky Sanchez adding to the mix.
Stanley Jordan has always been a bit of an enigma. Is his muse best served as a solo artist or in ensemble? His prodigious tapping technique, still the core of his musicality, seems to lend itself best to his solo efforts as opposed to his trio with the equally prodigious Charnett Moffett on bass, and drums. Curiously Moffett confined his efforts to the bass guitar, where perhaps his acoustic bass might have better served Jordan. Jordan’s technique also seems best served at ballad tempo, as was the case on lovely renditions of Thad Jones’ "A Child is Born" and "My One and Only Love" — both solo. After all these years Stanley Jordan still seems in search of his proper niche. Perhaps his forthcoming first record in a decade, for Mack Avenue, will provide more clues.
Saturday afternoon and evening is the true performance high point of the Panama Jazz Festival. Presented free to the people on a bustling plaza abutting an ancient cathedral in Old Panama City, over 10,000 revelers jammed the space for what has become a real celebration. Along the sides of the audience space, stage front of which was jammed with neatly placed chairs, folks were grilling food, the drink stand served up potent and inexpensive rum & cokes pouring Panama’s hearty Abuelo Rum, and the teeming throng thoroughly enjoyed a reprise of all of the previous evening’s concert artists. Added to that mix were the Monk Institute Ensemble and the NEC student ensemble with their separate programs of originals, Panamanian pianist Dino Nugent, and from Seattle vocalist Kelley Johnson.
The Caribbean Jazz Project, positioned a bit earlier in the day than one might imagine for a band of their repute, performed another crisply rewarding program. Kelley Johnson won many hearts with her keen ear for a good song and broad repertory, which included a nice concluding Abbey Lincoln medley and a traditional bolero she winningly sang in Spanish. Once again it was Tia Fuller’s quartet which captured the day, threatening to lift off the stage on the wings of an audience response that bordered on hysteria. Catherine Russell and Stanley Jordan closed out a great day in Old Panama City and capped off another successful Panama Jazz Festival.