Sun and cerulean sky rule the azure surf, as kite-riders curl arabesques and lively merengue jazz drifts over the waving palms of Cabarete Beach. Along the silvery sands, from seaside bandstand to classroom, move tiers of musicians in shifting roles at the pastel FeduJazz School: Preteens toot and strum, collegians run scales and workshops, elders teach master classes and rehearsals—all immersed like surfers in the updraft.
The Dominican Republic Jazz Festival, the Caribbean’s oldest after Cuba and Puerto Rico, has for 21 years presented Panamerican music in soaring shows that cross Stateside bands with native jazz and merengue groups while nurturing a strong educational program. Artistic Director Marco Pignataro—saxophonist and managing director of Berklee College’s Global Jazz Institute—has expanded the program’s curricula, and conceives annual themes of tangible musical and social impact.
Whereas the 2016 edition’s female bandleaders called attention to women’s education and health, guests at the 2017 festival guests framed International Nights exemplifying global unity, with players from all over the world: pianist Alain Mallet and Paris Conservatory (France), Trio da Paz (Brazil), clarinetist Anat Cohen and harmonicat Roni Eytan’s Quartet (Israel), trumpeters Brian Lynch and Sean Jones (United States) and trombonist William Cepeda (Puerto Rico).
Italian-born Pignataro’s own Almas Antiguas Quartet embodied overseas brotherhood, hosting Israeli bassist Ehud Ettun and Stateside artists Alan Pasqua and Adam Cruz on piano and drums, as well as Boston tenor sax paisano George Garzone; they gracefully explored the leader’s sepia-tint folk songs and the Italian classic “Estate.”
“Music affects society, [and it] can inspire democracy,” Pignataro said. “We want to bring about social change in a new model for student training: Give poor kids a T-shirt, an instrument and a sense of belonging. Here theory meets practice: It gets better every year.” The festival’s wider mission had all players reach out beyond FeduJazz’s free music programs into community action. Smiles beamed as Berklee’s grad-student quintet led a noonday concert of kids’ bands playing Thelonious Monk, Clifford Brown, James Brown and Vivaldi for a diverse audience of 500 preteens.
In Puerto Plata’s pretty, well-lit Independence Park, Brazil’s masterful Trio da Paz—Romero Lubambo (guitar), Nilson Matta (bass), Duduka da Fonseca (drums)—played a sly, confident set celebrating 31 years. They recapped samba history (and their master class) with baião, bossa nova, Bach and frevo, as Lubambo’s exhilarating single-string study stopped the show. The trio amped the amity, inviting all to jam on “Girl From Ipanema” and “Blues Walk”: Pignataro and Garzone, eloquent Pasqua, Lynch and Jones sharing a borrowed trumpet.
Hilarity peaked as Duduka double-timed, Garzone morphed from Godfather II to Raging Bull, and Jones ascended on a fleet, polished solo. Earlier, Dominican drummer Guy Fròmeta’s animated trio featured agile Dutch pianist Jonn Reyna in samba-tinged bop that veered smooth and hot with altoist Franzi Alcántara.
Locales widened geographically this year: The French kicked off with an attention-getter in the capital city of Santo Domingo, the Argentines featured El Eco inland at Santiago, then four nights ran on the resort-rich north coast, in the lovely port towns of Sosúa, Puerto Plata and Cabarete.
Open-air venues welcomed all with free admission, excellent sound, comfy seats, good sight lines and pleasant amenities. Of special note was Santiago’s handsome Centro León with its pre-Hispanic Taino art exhibit and aviary. Audience appreciation turned effusive when powerful trumpets and drums took charge and positively frenzied when favorite merengue artists hit the stage.
Berkleeites enjoyed onstage takeaways with the energized, freewheeling Cohen. South Korean pianist Yumi Kim’s “aha!” scare came when the band stopped cold, exposing her improvised cadenza. “Anat knew how to bring out the best in each of us,” said Texan Henry Beal, whose solo bass opened “Lonnie’s Lament.” “Our performance was one I’ll never forget.”
Florentine Cosimo Boni, he of many splendid trumpet solos, affirmed: “To play with Garzone was a dream come true. He’s a constant source of inspiration on his saxophone, as a teacher and mentor.”
Weekend crowds surfaced on Cabarete Beach, a hunter’s moon sparkling the surf. Jones, Berklee’s brass chair, came to play hard: Joined by pianist Orrin Evans, bassist Ben Williams and drummer Marcus Whitfield Jr., Jones tore it up with flag-waving originals.
Lynch, long a veteran of Latin jazz with Eddie Palmieri, led a suave Cuban/Venezuelan sextet drawing from Madera Latino (Hollistic MusicWorks), his deep Woody Shaw tribute. His buoyant horn and sassy charts reimagined Monk’s “Let’s Call This” and Miles Davis’ “Solar” in wiry son montuno with Pignataro.
After Jones came back for rousing two-trumpet Shaw classics, the night-owls flew next door to Pomodoro’s pizzeria for jamming. William Cepeda brought his trombone, conch shells, septet and simpatico message from stricken Puerto Rico with energy and emotion. David Rodriguez stole trumpet honors, and FeduJazz altoists made warm cameos.
DR favorites provided highlights nightly. Rafelito Mirabal & Sistema Temperado roared old-school merengue riffs, pambiche, samba and tango on keyboard and four saxes, with Pelle Vega on lap cajon (bombakini). Javier Vargas’ sextet Atre overarched the Pat Metheny/Lyle Mays aesthetic with Laura Bonifacio’s stunning vocals. Fefita la Grande—reigning queen of merengue tipico—shook booty, squeezed accordion, sang gravelly and leapt in the hearts of listeners.