14 August 2007
By Tapani Lausti
If you want to combine a Mediterranean holiday with a chance to hear excellent jazz, Almuñécar is the place for you. For twenty years an annual jazz festival has been held in the beautiful tropical botanical park of El Majuelo. Known as "Jazz en la costa", this mid-July festival has featured many world-famous musicians. This year probably the best-known artists were veteran tenor saxophonists Benny Golson and Johnny Griffin whose youthful performance seemed to defy the laws of aging.
The stage is set below a flood-lit Moorish castle; the bar and seating areas are surrounded by palm trees. The special atmosphere has fascinated many performing artists. The Cuban clarinetist-saxophonist Paquito D'Rivera is quoted as saying that he would be willing to play in the park even for free. The place reminds him of his native Cuba. "There is something magical about this place", he says. There is indeed a jazz club feeling to the site, even if it is outdoors.
This year (our seventh visit to the festival) the music featured was very varied. Golson and Griffin represented the more established style. A Norwegian-Swedish band called Atomic played free jazz which went down quite well with the audience in spite of being quite demanding for an average jazz listener. The stylistically unpredictable Don Byron also brought some heat to the proceedings with a spirited performance during which he played mainly tenor saxophone instead of his usual clarinet. His saxophone sound was very pleasing.
Also from the more challenging end of the jazz world came the World Saxophone Quartet. The lineup was the usual David Murray (tenor), Oliver Lake (alto and soprano) and Hamiet Bluiett (baritone) but the second alto saxophonist, Toni Kofi, was a surprise to us. His name and music are familiar to us from the London scene. Kofi seemed to enjoy himself immensely in the company of the more established musicians. (Listen to Kofi's excellent album All Is Know: Tony Kofi Quartet plays Monk, Specific 2004. The lineup includes familiar names to the readers of these pages: Jonathan Gee, piano, and Winston Clifford, drums.)
Vibraphonist Mike Mainieri brought his current edition of Steps Ahead to Almuñécar. The saxophonist was Bill Evans who became known for his role in the later Miles Davis bands. Spectacular saxophone music was also performed by altoist Eric Marienthal in the band called "Reunion", led by pianist Jim Beard. The trumpet player was the German Till Brönner, a welcome new name to us, although we have heard a little bit of his music on Toots Thielemans's album One More for the Road (Verve 2006).
Another excellent trumpeter was the Spanish Diego Urcola who played in Carlos Carli's band. Carli is a Uruguayan-born drummer who has worked in Spain since 1977. Carli was one among the amazing drummers who sat behind their set in every concert: Dennis Chambers in the "Reunion" band, Steve Smith in "Steps Ahead", Calvin Weston with the "World Saxophone Quartet", Alvin Queen with Golson and Griffin, Rodney Holmes with Don Byron and finally Reuben Rogers with the tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman whose trio brought the festival to the end. Redman was received enthusiastically by the knowledgeable audience, and for good reason.
Almuñécar may not be well-known in the jazz world but it is well worth remembering. The town is for the Granadians what Brighton is for Londoners, a sea-side place for holidays and weekend breaks. The festival is described as an extension for the Granada jazz festival which takes place in November.
See this year's jazz festival programme and visit the music pages of my archive
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