Port-au-Prince is one of the most intoxicating places I've ever been. The Haitian capital is filthy and utterly dysfunctional – one vast, chaotic squatters camp/street market strewn across the hills that climb up towards Kenscoff and baked onto a coastal plane that drags itself into the Caribbean. It's the first city of the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. A difficult, squalid place to live. But it's also colourful and captivating. It heightens your senses and works its way into your dreams, filling your head with images of lacy, "gingerbread" mansions and brightly painted "tap tap" minibuses, with the sound of carnival bands, birdsong and grinding gears, and the sweet smell of bougainvillea and gasoline.

I was taken aback by all the laughter. Haiti's backstory reads like an Argos catalogue of disasters. They've suffered colonial brutality and blackmail, political turmoil, ruthless dictatorship and sickening corporate exploitation, fires, hurricanes and epidemics. Not to mention the earthquake of 2010, one of the most catastrophic events of the modern era. Port-au-Prince has seen so much death, yet it feels full of life, sunnier and more optimistic than you'd think possible. It's truly inspiring.

As many expats will tell you (there are thousands of embassy staff and foreign NGO workers here), there's something magical about this city and some of that magic rubs off on the Festival International de Jazz de Port-au-Prince. The eight-day event, now in its 11th year, is co-run by Joël Widmaier, a musician and head of Haiti's Radio Metropole, and Milena Sandler, the daughter of celebrated Haitian actress and singer Toto Bissainthe. I was in town for the first half of the week. The programming was strong and the organisation, particularly the sound, was excellent. If you can run a jazz festival somewhere as logistically challenging as Port-au-Prince you really can run one anywhere. But it was the setting and the giddy, dreamlike atmosphere of the whole event that made it.

Take the opening night. Seeing Danilo Pérez (pictured top), Wayne Shorter's pianist of choice, is always special. Seeing Pérez play an intimate, after-hours set at the Quartier Latin, a bar in a converted mansion in the suburb of Pétion-Ville, while sipping Barbancourt rum and watching rain drip from the patio umbrellas and the leaves of the banana trees? That's an experience you don't forget. Particularly when it comes right off the back of a gala concert in the grounds of an old sugar plantation, patrolled by haughty peacocks and skittish guinea fowl, featuring Haitian-American vocalist Sarah Elizabeth Charles and trumpeter Christian Scott (below) on an open-air stage, playing their hearts out into the teeth of a tropical storm.

SEC-and-Scott

In the end, the elements proved too much and the set was cut short, though not before Scott had carved out a few lacerating, deeply soulful solos. Of Charles' originals, the best was 'Free of Form', the title track from her third album, due for release later this year. It began as a mellow, R&B groover, becoming grittier and rockier as it progressed, climaxing with blazing, electro-enhanced trumpet and vocals.

Pérez's set, though equally brief, was one of the highlights of the week. 'Elegant Dance', based on a refined Panamanian dance form called punto, and 'Suite For The Americas' brought quick-stepping rhythms on congas and drum kit interlaced with twisting horn lines and bold Wheeler-esque harmonies, played by fiery soprano player Carlos Agrazal and trumpeter Roberto Ruiz. Pérez was mesmerising throughout, needling the band (all tutors from his jazz foundation in Panama City) with keyboard thumps and broken chords and building the energy with scampering, asymmetric runs.

Rubalcaba

The next few days brought more magic and a little more characterful chaos. Most of the remaining performances took place on an open-air stage at Quisqueya University, which the tech team were still hastily building when we arrived on Monday night. A car had allegedly been parked in the allotted space and the driver hadn't come back, so a team of 10 burly Haitians had to pick it up and move it out of the way. There was an hour-long delay, but I passed the time watching tiny, iridescent hummingbirds flit between the magnolia trees, so no great hardship.

Those headline shows were followed by nightly after-hours sets at hotels and bars around the city. On Tuesday, impressive Belgian trumpeter Jean-Paul Estiévenart channeled Clifford Brown with half an hour of cutting hard bop at the Hôtel Montana, recently rebuilt following the quake. From the terrace you can see the whole of Port-au-Prince shimmering in the valley below. PapJazz has close ties with many of the embassies in Haiti, and both Europe and the Americas were well represented, with a small cast of careworn ambassadors taking turns to introduce their acts.

As you might expect, there was also a lot of latin jazz on the bill, and later in the week we saw an outstanding set from Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba (above) and his Volcán Trio, of bassist Armando Gola and drummer Horacio 'el Negro' Hernandez. Rubalcaba has atrocious taste in synth sounds, but his piano-playing was sublime. Especially on 'El Cadete', a theatrical Danzon (one of Cuba's most elegant styles) written by his grandfather, a bandleader in the 1930s. Close your eyes and you were transported to a Havana ballroom, full of neatly turned-out Cuban gentlemen bowing to their dancing partners.

The remainder of the performance, which wound up with 'La Nueva Cubana', a Rubalcaba classic from the 1980s, brought bruising grooves and reams of rhythmic trickery. That's what makes top-flight Cuban bands such a joy to watch. Their rhythmic security is humbling. They have total freedom within the groove. They run rings around you and around each other, switching between meters so distantly related they wouldn't make it onto the same family tree. Watching 'El Negro' play steaming swing with one half of his body and fiendish, switchback clave patterns with the other, as Gola laid down a third bustling groove and Rubalcaba floated free of the time altogether, had me grinning from ear to ear.

The most unorthodox take on the latin jazz tradition came earlier that night, from German pianist Sebastian Schunke and his Berlin Quartet. Schunke has worked with Antonio Sánchez and Paquito d'Rivera. He named Rubalcaba as one of his heroes, but his approach is very much his own. It's like Latin jazz viewed through a kaleidoscope or glimpsed in a broken mirror. 'Move More' brought refracted montunos and splintered melodies and 'Misterioso' was dark and stormy, with a slug of romance and a dash of classical impressionism (Schunke was raised on Brahms and Debussy). Bassist Marcel Krömker was solid and there were muscular solos from Dan Freeman on saxes and Uruguayan drummer Diego Pinera, who whipped the band along with vicious snare-drum tattoos and a storm of percussion.

Canizares

As this year's festival coincided with International Women's Day, there was also a focus on female artists, who made up over half the programme. Canadian vocalist/pianist Carol Welsman delivered a polished, gently-swinging set of standards, the perfect accompaniment to a balmy night on the rum punch. And Swiss-Cuban vocalist/violinist Yilian Cañizares (above) went down well with the studenty crowd at the university. A frenzied joint feature for Cañizares' violin and Richard Bona-like bassist Childo Tomas was a highlight.

With big international names on the bill, I worried that local bands might not get much of a look in, just as I worried after the gala concert at the sugar plantation and a lavish jazz brunch/art exhibition the next morning (attended by the same affluent, expat-heavy crowd) that the jazz festival might be aimed at a very limited section of Haitian society. Both concerns proved to be unfounded.

All of the university gigs were free and a big public event in Pétion-Ville's Boyer Square was planned for Friday, followed by a set from star Haitian DJ Gardy Girault. During my time there, young band SMS Kreyol blew the roof off Pétion-Ville bar Presse Café at one of the most enjoyable after-hours. Their music blends jazz, funk, soul and R&B with a ubiquitous Haitian style called compas (kompa, in Haitian Creole), that sounds a bit like laid-back reggaeton. There are myriad varieties, but at its core there's always a pulsing, easy-to-dance-to beat. SMS bassist/band-leader Steve Cineus and ultra-tight drummer Eder Junior Charles are excellent instrumentalists and there were guest appearances from young singer Alexa and James Germain, one of Haiti's best-known vocalists. Both have serious, soulful sets of lungs.

Follow-Jah

Festival co-founder Joël Widmaier and a virtuosic band featuring his father, Mushy, on keys, offered another take on Haitian jazz funk fusion, drawing on compas and creole pop, while at the jazz brunch, electric bassist Gerald Kebreau and his trio proved they had chops to burn. They even managed to make 'Cantaloupe Island' compelling.

And I have to mention Follow Jah (above), a rara band from Pétion-Ville. Rara is Haitian festival music, traditionally played during Easter processions. It's the Haitian equivalent of the Mardi Gras marching band tradition in New Orleans, a riot of drums, percussion and bouncy, blarty trumpets – rudimentary horns made from plastic or recycled tin. It's heaps of fun to dance to.

Follow Jah appeared at gigs throughout the week to entertain the crowds in the lull between sets and they were there on that opening night at the sugar plantation too, braving the elements, with a pair of dancers teetering atop stilts following along behind them.

To me, rara is the sound of Port-au-Prince: jubilant, raucous and chaotic. And it's just the beginning. Haiti's music scene is astonishingly rich, easily the equal of its neighbour, Cuba. It's just much, much less talked about. In part because no-one ever goes. The plane over was split fifty-fifty between Haitian expats returning home and Pennsylvania missionaries with evangelical smiles and carry-on bags full of can-do attitude. And if there's one thing Haiti doesn't need it's more religion.

What it needs is money and visitors. And it deserves them. Little by little Haitian tourism is bouncing back and PapJazz is part of that. If you want a festival experience that feels like an adventure, a trip, a step into the unknown, one that mixes star names with sounds you've never heard before, you should come. And if you do I expect you'll find it a hard place to forget.

On that first night at the Quartier Latin, I spoke to Monique, a French NGO worker in her forties who's been living in Port-au-Prince for the past 20 years. "You have to get away sometimes," she told me, "but Haiti always calls you back. It has this magnetic thing."

– Thomas Rees

– All photos by Josué Azor

 TD-James-Brandon-Lewis-07

After a stellar performance for a sold-out audience John McLaughlin had more than earned the right to an early night, but his presence at the side of the stage is a notable endorsement for the group that follows him. Put simply, the guitar legend is seriously feeling the James Brandon Lewis Trio. But the young Americans, making their UK debut, construct a formidably fierce wall of sound that is hard to ignore, even for superstar musicians enjoying the sanctuary of a dressing room.

Tenor saxophonist Lewis, bass guitarist Luke Stewart and drummer Warren 'Trae' Crudup make their intentions very clear by way of the title of their debut album in any case. No Filter unveils a raw, rugged, uncut and uncompromising aesthetic, and that is exactly what the players deliver. The sheer hardness of their attack has the front row initially leaning back, eyebrows raised and then heads nodding in hypnosis when the full force of the music really starts to kick in.

TD-James-Brandon-Lewis-09

What JBL trio does so compellingly is show the roots of hip hop in funk and jazz, making the very important point that the kick drum-led 'boom bap', that heartbeat throb that has come to mould pop music in the millennium, is part of a wider rhythmic lexicon that includes a more fluid swing and the loose, floating 'free' metre associated with the avant-garde. The cohesion with which all these enduring historical elements are handled is enhanced by the 'live mixtape' format of the set whereby half a dozen pieces, which include 'Lament For JLew', 'Raise Up off Me', 'Zen' and 'Able Souls Dig Planets', form a suite that unfurls like a long exhalation of energy marked by careful hiccoughs.

Lewis, whose previous release Divine Travels saw him work with veterans William Parker and Gerald Cleaver, has a wrought iron tone and punchy phrasing that references as much the instrumental R&B tradition as it does jazz, and in many ways his ability to create riffs that have the feel of 'breaks' serves as a potent reminder of both the ingenuity of players like Eddie Harris in the 1970s and the visionary use of horn samples by Public Enemy in the 1980s. JBL's immersion in hip hop is reflected by a very personal way of sculpting timbres to create a distortion that sounds uncannily like a DJ's 'backward scratch'.

Bassist Stewart also pushes his sound into interestingly undefined spaces, using electronics to fashion sometimes very austere, spectral resonances that have an industrial rock flavour, but he also impresses for the sharpness of his movement between lower and upper register, and the expert timing with which he hits the unison lines with Lewis. As for Crudup, who drew such a broad smile from McLaughlin, he is a powerful anchor and agitator of rhythm, filling spaces with sufficient additional commentary on the beat without unhinging the ensemble voice. His snare and tom sounds are pleasingly dry, cementing the tough vocabulary of his partners. The closer 'Bittersweet' is a wry, downbeat lament, the calm after the storm, a soothing ballad for an audience that has greatly relished its time in the tremulous eye of the hurricane.

– Kevin Le Gendre 
– Photos by Tim Dickeson

The Elgar Room, the Royal Albert Hall's highly accommodating 200-capacity concert space within the main concert hall building, has an exciting and diversely programmed weekly Late Night Jazz series with concerts happening every Thursday. The series showcases many emerging and established jazz names across a wide-spectrum of sounds from propulsive fusion-edged newcomers Ezra Collective, to swinging tributes to jazz divas Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald. There's also a rare live jazz-poetry night from revered British poet Michael Horovitz and his William Blake Klezmatrix Band plus a welcome appearance from Brit jazz-rock icons Soft Machine, with founding guitarist John Etheridge (above), in late June.

All shows start at 9.45pm and include: Ezra Collective (13 April); Deelee Dubé Sings Sarah Vaughan with the Renato D'Aiello Quartet (20 April); Anthony Strong Trio (4 May); A'la Ella! A Tribute to Ella Fitzgerald (11 May); The Tricity Vogue All Girl Swing Band (18 May) Benoit Viellefon Hot Club (25 May); Michael Horovitz and his William Blake Klezmatrix Band (8 June); Alex Hitchcock Quintet (15 June); Jumoké Fashola: Protest! – Divas, Words & Revolution (22 June) and Soft Machine (29 June).

– Mike Flynn
– Photo by Tim Dickeson

For more info visit: www.royalalberthall.com/tickets/series/late-night-jazz

The weeklong Jazzwise 20th anniversary celebrations kicked off in spectacular style last night. The word genius is bandied about far too often these days, but in the case of John McLaughlin, the epithet is undisputedly warranted for one of the world's most influential and inspirational guitarists/composers.

The two-night stint at Ronnie's comes at the end of an intense 10-date European tour. McLaughlin wanted the Ronnie's gigs to be the climax of the tour since the club is so very dear to his heart. As he explained in his interview in Jazzwise: "Ronnie and Ronnie Scott's-where would I be without them?... it's thanks to Ronnie personally that when I got the invite from Tony Williams in 1968, it was thanks to Ronnie that I was able to get the visa". The rest, as they say, is history. From being a member of Ronnie Scott's house band in the late 1960s McLaughlin's rise to world stardom was truly meteoric. He's travelled along many different paths during his amazing 50-year career but whatever course he has chosen to take, his music always seethes with passion, humanity and spirituality. His music is yin and yang, fire and grace.

TD-John-McL-1-37

McLaughlin and his regular band, the 4th Dimension, of Gary Husband (keyboards and drums), Étienne Mbappé (electric bass) and Ranjit Barot (drums), were on fire as they took the sell-out audience on a breath-taking musical journey that lasted over two hours without a break. McLaughlin's guitar technique at 75 is just as terrifyingly mesmerising as it was all those years ago when he took the world by storm with those Mahavishnu masterpieces of the early 1970s.

TD-John-McL-1-15

It was fantastic to hear the band revisiting the incendiary Mahavishnu material, the band erupting with two classics: "Meeting of the Spirits" from The Inner Mounting Flame of 71 and 'Miles Beyond' from Birds of Fire from 1973. From then on the set was a gloriously potent mix of old and new material. It wasn't all fast and furious fusion. 'Gaza City' from his Backlight album of 2015 had me in tears. A quiet prayer for those who suffered intolerably in the Gaza bombardment in 2014, it reminds us that this was just one example of man's obscene inhumanity to man. Indeed, the horrors go on unabated.

We need "love and understanding" to repair our screwed-up world as Rangit pleads in Abbaji, the melody simple, anthemic and immensely powerful. The band were in joyous flamenco mood in 'El Hombre que Sabia'. This tune was to be recorded with Paco de Lucia but sadly the virtuoso flamenco guitar legend left us three years ago. Here, the duet between McLaughlin and Husband on keys was awesome. In fact, Husband was incredible throughout the entire evening, whether he was behind the drums or at the keyboard. I don't think it's an over-statement to call Gary a genius as well as John. Mbappé and Barot were stunning too. What a band! I felt honoured to have been there.

TD-John-McL-1-17

We mustn't forget clarinettist Arun Ghosh and his band for their wonderful contribution at the beginning of the evening. They put the audience in a joyous mood before the main event, and Alex Garnett and the guys who bopped away until the early hours to send everyone home in a swinging mood.

– Geoff Eales
– Photos by Tim Dickeson


Parker-Vid-Still

Evan Parker draws back the veil on the challenges of improvisation during Awkward, a charming and revealing short film produced in 2014 capturing the iconic British saxophonist in intimate conversation and performance at The Vortex Jazz Club alongside John Russell (guitar), John Edwards (double-bass), Adam Linson (double-bass) and Matt Wright (turntables).

This is the first time Awkward has been made publically available by the film's director and producer Adam Brichto, and it has been kindly donated to us here at Jazzwise on the occasion of the magazine's 20th birthday celebrations this month.

– Spencer Grady

Awkward from Adam Brichto on Vimeo

Page 7 of 183

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