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Amazonas Green Jazz Festival, Manaus, Brazil (Part 1 of 3)

Amazonas Green Jazz Festival, July 21-July 30, 2023, Manaus, Brazil.

In this first of three reports, we welcome New York-based journalist Ted Panken to LJN. Ted reports for us from the Amazonas Green Jazz Festival, which ran from July 21 to July 30 in Manaus, the capital of the Amazonas State in Brazil. As this general review hopes to impart, the high programming of this unique event rivaled its milieu for diversity and fecundity.

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Amilton Godoy and Eliane Elias in Teatro Amazonas. Photo credit: Carolina Falcão / Amazonas Green Jazz Festival

Located in Brazil’s equatorial interior, at the juncture of the Rio Negro and the Amazon River (also known as Rio Solimões), surrounded by the rain forest, the city of Manaus, now the home of 2.2 million, was founded during the rubber boom of the 19th century, when its four-tiered, 700-seat French Revival opera house, Teatro Amazonas, was built. Still isolated from the rest of Brazil by vast distance and difficult terrain in 2023, Manaus — which was established as a free export and import zone in 1957 — is home to several hundred international corporations and a well-educated population, and is the capital of the State of Amazonas, whose Secretariat of Culture sponsors an opera company, a dance company, a theater, a folkloric guitar company, a symphony orchestra, a 70-voice choir, and an accomplished jazz big band with a magical groove. This virtual island is also home to a sophisticated, completely realized cuisine that cannot be replicated elsewhere, based on regional fish species, fruits, root vegetables, and grains.

The surreally spectacular Teatro Amazonas, most famously depicted in the Werner Herzog film Fitzcarraldo, was the prime locale of the 2023 edition of the Amazonas Green Jazz Festival. Festival Director Rui Carvalho — himself a conductor-educator-composer-drummer-anthropologist-author — curated the programs with abiding hipness, aesthetic soulfulness, and pragmatic daring, juxtaposing concerts by renowned and obscure Brazilian musicians, many of them regional, with international bands, and also commissioning large-scale programmatic works. Carvalho further signified on the Amazon milieu by explicitly acknowledging “woman warriors,” i.e., Amazonas do Jazz,” by inviting numerous groups formed or led by woman, as indicated by the festival logo, on which the word “Ellas” (“she” in Portuguese) subtitled a head shot of Ella Fitzgerald.

Rui Carvalho. Photo credit: Carolina Falcão / Amazonas Green Jazz Festival

Carvalho presented these parallel streams on night one. The festival began with Amazonia Green Forever Suite, comprising five separate pieces by Ed Sarath that incorporated multiple rhythms and timbres of Brazil, performed by the Coral do Amazonas and the big band,. Particularly memorable were scorings of “Uma Vida (One Life)” and “Constatação (Finding)” by Manaus-born poet-journalist-composer Anibal Beça (1946-2009) on which the chorus raised a joyful noise, at one point collectively improvising on a significant passage before resolving back to the harmonic structure.

The second act was a quintet helmed by Camille Thurman-Green including trumpeter Wallace Roney, Junior, a chip off the old block who played a series of well-proportioned, idiomatic solos, and pianist Victor Gould, who did the same. On four instrumentals, among them a reharmed “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” and the Miles Davis-associated “So Near, So Far,” Green played tenor sax with broad registral range and a husky tone that, for some reason, evoked Stanley Turrentine crossed with Bennie Maupin. She sang another four with a seemingly no–limits voice, including a “Going out of My Head” that mashed up the styles of Dianne Reeves and Betty Carter. On “Easy to Love” she opened with a bravura intro upon which, after Roney said his piece, she elaborated with several inspired scat choruses.

A week later, Sarath (the subject of a forthcoming LJN profile) presented an inspiring 5-movement interpretation of the Maya Angelou poem “His Day Is Done,” written after the death of Nelson Mandela, with the Amazonas Symphony, again joined by the choir and a top-shelf Detroit-centric jazz cohort including violinist Regina Carter, resourceful percussionist Mark Stone, bassist Marion Hayden, drummer Gayelynn McKinney, and Sarath on flugelhorn, along with Capetown-based percussionist-flautist-little instruments master Dizu Plaatje. Before a capacity crowd, the strings and brass met the music’s considerable dynamic and rhythmic challenges; the chorus projected a collective soulfulness and passion that did justice to the subject.

Regina Carter. Dizu Plaatje and the Global Jazz Collectve.
Photo credit: Carolina Falcão / Amazonas Green Jazz Festival

On the following evening, July 28, the aforementioned personnel and Brazilian pianist Cris Bloes convened as the Afrodiaspora-oriented Global Jazz Collective, performing one piece per member. Not everything suited the instrumentation, and the set began tentatively. The momentum palpably shifted halfway through with Sarath’s “19/8,” picked up momentum with Carter’s “Black Bottom Dance” (featuring the composer’s high-energy solo), and concluded with a highlife on which Plaatje sang and danced, projecting his abiding musicality on several ingeniously self-constructed and indigenous instruments.

Amaro Freitas. Photo credit: Carolina Falcão / Amazonas Green Jazz Festival

On that evening’s first show, Recife-based pianist Amaro Freitas presented his singular Afro-Brazilian-Jazz concept, playing primarily songs from his third CD, Sankofa, with a kinetic, breathe-as-one trio, concluding with a long solo piece (foreshadowing the format of an upcoming 2024 album with collaborators including Shabaka Hutchings, Hamid Drake, Brandee Younger and Jeff Parker) that highlighted his unique blend of Afrofuturistic attributes. He knows his post-Coltrane/Hancock/Shorter harmony; creates melodies that connect strongly to his audience and narratives centered around Brazil’s African and indigenous cultures; juxtaposes fluent classical (legato) and percussive techniques that evoke Cecil Taylor and Don Pullen, augmented by homegrown prepared piano implements that morph the piano into a virtual synthesizer (particularly when Freitas addressed the strings and the piano’s exoskeleton with a small shaker) and a drum choir.

Pianist-composer Ellen Rowe, Sarath’s University of Michigan colleague, presented her “Portraits of Women in Motion” suite by an octet propelled by Allison Miller, who locked in with the always on-point Marion Hayden on a series of well-organized shuffles, swingers, second-liners and funk tunes with nice melodies and improvisation-facilitating changes. Nadje Noordhuis evoked various Ellington trumpeters with relentless lyricism, and tenor saxophonist Virgina Mayhew uncorked several fresh solos, as did Felipe Salles (subbing for Rowe’s scheduled altoist, who was unable to travel), who elicited a Sanbornish tone from a borrowed horn, interacting with Miller’s various syncopations and accents.

Himself a highly accomplished tenor saxophonist and composer, Salles presented a top-shelf sextet — Noordhuis, Natalie Cressman, trombone and vocals; Nando Michelin, piano; Keala Kaumeheiwa, bass; and Bertram Lehmann on drums — to play reductions of involved, highly satisfying pieces from his accomplished new album Home Is Here, which features bespoke “tones parallel” to Paquito D’Rivera, Melissa Aldana, Yosvany Terry, Jacques Schwarz-Bart, Chico Pinheiro, Magos Herrera, Sofia Rei, and Noordhuis for 19-piece orchestra, the themes based on interviews with the soloists.

Amazonas Band – Randy Brecker bumping his fist. Photo credit: Carolina Falcão / Amazonas Green Jazz Festival

Salles presented another five numbers culled from different points along his timeline with the Amazonas Big Band (conducted by Maestro Carvalho), which nailed all the complexities. Earlier in the set, Carvalho danced the band through several of his creative, Gil Evans-ish charts on “Chega de Saudade,” “Desafinado,” “Dindi,” and several others, including a few with local singer Márcia Siqueira, whose soulful contralto evoked Leny Andrade, who’d passed away earlier that day. Preceding them, another accomplished Amazon-region guitarist, Ismail Nascimento, played primarily original songs with a strong trio propelled by a good drummer (didn’t catch his name) who had an array of samba-jazz rhythms at his disposal.

Salles’ sextet concert followed a terrific “straight ahead” quartet set by guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg (with Roy Haynes’ pianist of choice Martin Bejerano and drummer Colin Stranahan) who concluded with a vertiginously metric-modulated, multi-perspectival tour through “You Don’t Know What Love Is.” Bejerano remained in town to play trio with the iconic Havana-born drummer Ignacio Berroa (Dizzy Gillespie, Gonzalo Rubalcaba) and bassist Edward Pérez, completely in synch on a definitively swinging set, fueled by maestro Berroa’s elegant metric modulations and Bejerano’s kinetic improvisations on bebop and Cuban vocabulary. Earlier in the day, Berroa presented a master class on his lived and familial experience of a Cuban music timeline spanning Barbarito Diez through Gonzalo Rubalcaba. I learned a lot.

They followed São Paolo pianist-singer Anette Camargo’s tribute to Tânia Maria’s hits from the 1970s and ’80s. Brazilian witnesses, intimate with the repertoire, reserved judgment. To my monolingual ears, Ms. Camargo is a dynamic performer, a two-handed piano player who can go percussive or rubato, with much bebop and Cuban vocabulary at her disposal. Her supple, powerful voice spans several registers. The drummer was too loud, but she interacted beautifully with the resourceful percussionist Danilo Moura. For some reason, I felt serious Dorothy Donegan vibrations.

Melissa Aldana Quartet. Photo credit: Carolina Falcão / Amazonas Green Jazz Festival

On the previous evening, tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana presented her touring quartet, including interactive pianist Lex Korten and drummer Kush Abadey, who played with tremendous sensitivity, nuance, pulse and intuition. Maestro Aldana’s exquisite tone traversed all the registers as she patiently developed her themes — the vibe, more or less (forgive the pithiness), was Jarrett’s ’70s European quartet meets 21st century Wayne Shorter.

Heloisa Fernandes. Photo credit: Carolina Falcão / Amazonas Green Jazz Festival

That Aldana went on fairly late, to a sparse audience, was unfortunate. The house had been full for an intense solo concert by São Paolo pianist Heloisa Fernandez, performing eight elegant, intense originals that evoked a flavor I’ll summarize as Villa Lobos meets Jarrett meets Mehldau. The patrons remained in place for an entertaining set by Quinteto Flow, fronted by singer-bassist Aline Fagan, who effectively interpreted primarily American standards and a few Brazilian numbers with a tight band including Marcelo Figueiredo on piano, guitar and bass and Neil Armstrong Jr. on guitar.

For the penultimate evening, Maestro Carvalho instigated the first-ever piano duo concert by Eliane Elias and her early mentor, Amilton Godoy, an iconic figure in MPB for his contributions to the Zimbo Trio from 1963 to 2002, and a pioneer in Brazilian piano expression. It was a tour de force, traversing George Shearing’s “Conception,” Bud Powell’s “Bouncing with Bud,” Chick Corea’s “Armando’s Rhumba,” Godoy’s “Choro,” and various Brazilian and Latin classics (“Esta Tarde Vi Llover,” “So Danço Samba,” “Batida Diferente”) that Godoy performed when they were new. The concert was recorded and filmed, and will be a worthy addition to Elias’ distinguished canon of duos with Herbie Hancock and, more recently, Chucho Valdés and Chick Corea.

On the final evening, Elias returned with a quartet (bassist Marc Johnson, drummer Mauricio Zotarelli, and a good guitarist) to sing a program of Brazilian standards, signifying on the lyrics with expansive solos that transpired to her signature left hand comping, refracting the percolating samba pulse of Cesar Camargo Mariano with the urgent swing feel of post Bud Powell American piano lineage. In a lovely piece of theater towards the end that evoked the early days of bossa nova, she transformed the corner stage-left into a São Paolo living room, convening the band behind her for several intimate pieces, with the ever-supportive Zotarelli on a single snare drum. A bit later, she invited Randy Brecker onstage to play pithy duos on Fats Waller’s “Don’t Let It Bother You” and a Brazilian standard.

Brecker, now 78, who’d arrived in Manaus after a 24-hour travel day, played an opening set of his good-old-good-ones with the Carvalhos-conducted big band, which nailed Vince Mendoza’s famous charts of “Some Skunk Funk” and “Straphanger,” as well as “First Tune of the Set,” “Tijuca” and “Shanghigh”. Launching off intense samba-funk beats from the world-class trapset-percussion team of Airton Silva and Knison Ribiero, Brecker found fresh things to play, expanding the flugelhorn’s range with nonchalant savoir faire (think Miles Davis rhythm-dancing executed with Bill Dixon extended techniques), raising his fist to acknowledge strong solos by alto saxophonist Ênio Prieto and the excellent guitarist Aldenor Honorato. Guest tenor saxophonists Salles (“Skunk Funk”) and Rodrigo Ursala (“Straphanger”) admirably channeled Michael Brecker, which is saying something.

Teatro Amazonas. Photo credit: Carolina Falcão / Amazonas Green Jazz Festival

LINK: Amazonas Green Festival on Facebook

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