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Havana International Jazz Festival

Ron Scott | 1/12/2017, 10:33 a.m.
The annual International Jazz Plaza de la Habana attracts musicians from around the world.
Lazaro Valdes Ron Scott

The annual International Jazz Plaza de la Habana attracts musicians from around the world. More importantly, it boosts the history and culture of this Caribbean country that preserves the music as the distinct drum voice sways through the leaves providing a rhythmic flow as the birds sing in flight.

Havana is one city where the concept of jazz dying is a mute issue. There are entirely too many young people playing everything from straight ahead jazz to Afro-Cuban jazz, fusion, to a mix of Santeria, Yoruba and Congolese rituals, Sun and hard mambo rhythms, where the conga drum retains a prominent role.

Cuba’s streets have their own unique rhythms that seem to be caught in a time warp. The cobblestone streets set the melody as horses gallop by (working harder than any cab driver). The passengers (school children or mothers with their young children) sit in the covered wagon, hiding from the midday sun.

They bounce and swing to the gallop, a thumping flow vibrating from century-old cobble stones. Shhhh… listen! Their conversational sounds represent the musical form of guajira, evoking a rural ambience, countryside lyrics that rhyme like poetry.

The bread man called out with a blues cadence, advertising bread for sale, as he walked neighborhood streets with the basket sitting on his shoulder, like in 1930s Harlem, when the iceman or the watermelon man called out with that same soul cadence.

The festival’s opening gala performance was sold out. The locals and tourists were all crowded together like anxious farmed salmon waiting to rush the state-of-the-art Teatro Mella. The largest venue of the festival, with a capacity of more than 1,500, had people sitting in the aisles and standing in the rear of the auditorium.

The all-star line-up featured native son pianist, composer, arranger and multi-Grammy winner Chucho Valdes, the trumpeter/composer Terence Blanchard, the bassist/bandleader Christian McBride and his trio and special guest vocalist Omara Portuondo.

The native Cuban, age 86, is the original vocalist of the Buena Vista Social Club project, which she has been working with since 1996. Portuondo began singing with her sisters in the popular group, Cuarteto d’Aida, in the early 1950s.

On her introduction, she received a rousing standing ovation and flowers were presented to her. The grand lady of Cuba, known for singing boleros, sang a touching ballad and romped through a song with Chucho’s quartet’s spirited Cubana jazz inflictions. She was inspired to dance, showing off some steps from her days as a dancer in Havana’s Tropicana Club in 1950.

Chucho, whose career spans more than five decades, has earned international status, like his father, the pianist, composer and arranger Bebo Valdes, who died in 2013.

Chucho played a variety of songs, from mambos to Afro-Cuban rhythms and a few tempered with a folklorish African beat. He was later joined by Blanchard and McBride, which connected the links of the days when Dizzy Gillespie was onstage with the Cuban bandleader/composer Mario Bauza and percussionist Chano Pozo.

Blanchard later joined the Christian McBride Trio in performing their version of “Blue Monk” and “Caravan,” the extended Afro-Cuban version.