Text and photos by Patricia Alisau
As unlikely it seems, a hurricane almost dashed the hopes of the first Riviera Maya Jazz Festival. “It almost didn’t take place,” Dario Flota, head of the Quintana Roo Tourism Board and organizer of the event, said, “because of the impending storm.” Against all odds, the show opened, Hurricane Isadore bypassed it, and the rest is history. In its 16th year last November, it showed it was still going strong.
Opening a week after Thanksgiving and stretching into the weekend, the host of the three-day event was Playa del Carmen, a charming coastal town gaining a reputation as the hottest vacation haven of the Mexican Caribbean. Taking place at night on a moon-drenched beach, this festival drew an estimated 22,000 fans packed in side-by-side on blankets, mats and even pup tents. The largest of its kind in Mexico, it marked the appearance of some of today’s most respected Mexican and American jazz artists, several of them Grammy winners. And the best part is that it’s free.
Among the headliners, for example, was singer-songwriter Norah Jones, who mesmerized the audience with her throaty, earthy and moody renditions of “Don’t Know Why” and “Come Away with Me.” The latter from her debut album by the same name, catapulted her to stardom with five Grammy awards in 2003 at the age of 23. Since then, her albums have sold over 47 million worldwide. Jones, the American-born daughter of sitar master Ravi Shankar, proved equally adept at the piano and guitar during her performance, churning out her sublime mix of jazz, country, rock and soul. And just about every one of thousands in attendance were intent on capturing the moment as cell phones bobbed up and down recording every note and gesture of the diva.
Speaking of moments, the mood became charged with the sultry voice and sensuous movements of Bebel Gilberto once she took to the stage with bossa nova. The daughter of Joao Gilberto, an early Brazilian pioneer of bossa nova of the 1960s, she sang selections from her Tudo album in an electronic adaptation of the genre. As a nod to Mexico, she also included a crowd-pleasing, romantic bolero, a mainstay of the country’s musical traditions. Gilberto began performing in her youth in Rio de Janeiro and her Brazilian roots are deeply ingrained, she said. Often admitting to her father’s influence, when asked to explain bossa nova, she replied,” It’s an attitude, a vibe, a sensation. It’s hard to define.”
Another artist with deep respect for his roots was Kike Pat on the keyboards with the themed, A Maya in Jazz, which opened the festival. Pat, a local with Maya ancestry, announced that his set was homage to the late drummer Fernando Toussaint, head of the group when it was called Aguamala, and musical director from the first days of the jazz festival. In the future, Pat expects to introduce ancient Maya instruments into his repertoire of Maya rhythms fused with jazz.
But he was not the only artist with Latin American heritage. Christina Morrison, who spends time between New York and Ecuador, birthplace of her parents, brought her exuberance and theatrical acting skills to her performance using a multimedia backdrop. A Broadway singer and actress, she said that she is not strictly a traditional jazz singer, and combined other genres such as cha cha, samba, and ballads in her presentation. Morrison sang numbers from her bilingual Impredecible album, which also supports ARTEDUCARTE, a public school program of the arts in the Galapagos, which she sponsors.
Vocalist Lori Williams, who’s latest CD is Out of the Box, headed up a duo with New York arranger Bob Baldwin on the piano. Totally in sync, they perhaps radiated the most joy on the stage with their upbeat medley, many of which were jazz renditions of Beatles’ songs. A playful mix of funk, hip hop, and Afro also lit up their musical agenda. Baldwin noted that adding these new beats to jazz makes them function the same as before, and that every generation gives jazz a different interpretation.
Just ask Drew Tucker. Tucker and the New Standard are championing the vibraphone and tuba, instruments not commonly found in jazz bands. The Florida-based front man and educator had been teaching music to rural kids in Mexico under the American Music Abroad program, sponsored by the US State Department, before making a surprise appearance at the festival. Tucker joked that the students thought his vibraphone looked like a Mexican marimba (and it does), and others mistake it for a xylophone. To get the message across, he sported a wacky, “It’s Not a Xylophone” t-shirt. The program that started in 1957 and has featured the likes of Louie Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie, will keep the New Standard on tour to other countries for a year.
The festival also included Mexican guitarist Paco Rosas, Mexican bassist Pepe Hernandez, and Grammy winners Lalah Hathaway and Bobby McFerrin. High-spirited McFerrin brought the crowd to their feet dancing in place on their small squares of sand with his effervescent, Don’t Worry, Be Happy, a tune which has traveled the world. The artist has collaborated in the past with Yo-Yo Ma, Chick Corea and the Vienna Philharmonic.
All in all, Flota said the festival was a huge success and included more female artists than ever before. His team is working on the 2019 edition, which will take place on or right after Thanksgiving. Go to: rivieramayajazzfestival.com in the coming months for more information.