2023 Jazz Fest: A musical feast, a cultural legacy
This weekend, the familiar Puerto Rican sounds of the cuatro, percussion instruments and vocals filled the Coca-Cola Music Hall in San Juan. While you might have heard these before, this was not typical of performances you would find at la plaza del pueblo or municipal festivals.
They were accompanied by a quartet led by Puerto Rican saxophonist, composer, producer, educator and Grammy-award nominee Miguel Zenón. It was the 2023 Mastercard Jazz Fest, and this edition was dedicated to Zenón.
Before diving into details, let me to take two steps back and tell you that I originally intended to attend opening night, which was last Friday. If you had been following the World Baseball Classic, then you’ll know that Puerto Rico’s Team Rubio was scheduled to face Mexico that night. Like thousands of Puerto Ricans, I didn’t want to miss it, so I decided to attend the Jazz Fest on Saturday, which, lucky me, also happened to be the night when Zenón would perform.
He opened the night wearing black jeans and a shirt with Puerto Rico’s flag underneath a beige suit jacket. His clothes seemed to match his personality: unpretentious, refined and relaxed.
After saluting and welcoming attendees, Zenón took us on a journey through his career, starting with him and his quartet — pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Hans Glawischnig and Henry Cole on the drums — playing “Quítate de la vía, Perico” from his 2019 production, “Sonero: The Music of Ismael Rivera.”
Transitioning into the next song, he stepped away from the spotlight to give his musicians time to shine before introducing his first guest of the night, Puerto Rican cuatro player Christian Nieves, who played “Villarán,” from Zenón’s 2005 production, “Jíbaro.” While Nieves’ soloing the first chords of the song was impressive and delightful, it became magical once Zenón and the band joined in. They were in the zone, and they knew it. You could see it in their faces. They were enjoying every moment of it and the public reciprocated the joy, awarding the performance with the first standing ovation of the night.
Tough act to follow, one might think. However, the next guest, percussionist Daniel Díaz also brought his “A” game to the hall with a contagious conga rhythm. Díaz and the quartet interpreted “Antillano,” from Zenón’s most recent production, “Música de las Américas” (2002). Díaz played not just one or two, but three congas simultaneously! And he was so graceful at it that he made it look effortless. Everyone, from Zenón and his music to those in attendance, looked at him with admiration.
After a smooth saxophone solo by Zenón, it was time to introduce one more guest, none other than singer and songwriter Danny Rivera. With the band, they performed “Alma Adentro,” a song which Zenón dedicated to his mom, who was in the audience. It was a beautiful, melancholic interpretation of this Sylvia Rexach song featured in Zenón’s 2011 production, “Alma Adentro: The Puerto Rican Songbook.”
Adequately selected, “Despedida” (“Farewell”) was the last song in Zenón’s set. While “plena” group La Máquina Insular (The Island Machine) got ready to perform, Zenón gave a brief explanation that the song was inspired by a traditional New Year’s Eve party thrown by a particular family that he used to attend. He described the event using the local expression “el acabose,” meaning the greatest in this context.
A beautiful moment followed when Zenón’s wife and daughter joined him on stage to receive the honors of having this festival’s edition dedicated to him. “For me, it’s very important to pass this knowledge on, not only as a musician but also as a professor. Thanks,” said Zenón.
The night continued with the wonderful, lively performances of Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, accompanied by Cuban singer, composer and actress Aymée Nuviola. Together, they put people on their feet, got us clapping to the beat and joining in the chorus of the following songs: “Bemba Colorá,” “El Guararey de Pastora,” “Lágrimas Negras,” “Chan Chan,” “Rompiendo la Rutina,” “Rumba callejera,” and “El Manisero.” Musicians Cristóbal Verdecía (bass), Reinier Guerra (drums), Majito Aguilera (percussion), Yunior Arronte (sax), Lourdes Nuviola (backing vocals) and Alfredo Lugo (backing vocals) joined them onstage.
It was certainly an unforgettable night, a master class in jazz music, a feast for the soul. While the economic impact of this three-day event was undisclosed, its cultural legacy is certainly priceless. I wish more people would attend.
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