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Jeff Levenson at the Barcelona Jazz Festival

A first-time visitor to Barcelona experiences a city bathed in beauty, a shimmering jewel framed by the Mediterranean and Montserrat, the famous jagged mountain in Catalan. It is a city that massages the senses. Its fulsome architecture is matched by graceful gastronomy gleaned from the earth and the sea - regional signatures extolling tradition and innovation. In and around Barcelona, the palm prints of man compete with those of nature.

Within this setting, the Barcelona Jazz Festival shines brightly. It is a 6-week program of music in the Fall, smartly curated to present artists and artist trends with a distinctly international flair. This year's schedule included Pat Metheny, Stefano Bollani, Dave Holland, Brad Mehldau, Silvia Perez Cruz, Joshua Redman and Enrico Rava. Such was the swirl of jazz activity and interests this year,that other artists, not officially connected to the Festival, showcased their talents for visiting presenters and journalists. Bassist Guila Valle was one such performer and she was a highlight.

Valle records for the Fresh Sound label. Her album, "Berenice," is a smart treatise on artful composition. She presents like a modernist Mingus, assertively tackling challenging time signatures and cajoling from her quintet a search-and-destroy outreach that
propells all. The under-appreciated tenorist Gorka Benitez is a worthy companion. In Valle's hands, the bass sounds alive - a tamed beast breathing life into heaving music.

Silvia Perez Cruz, one of the most important young voices in Catalonia, mixes elements of flamenco, jazz and fado into a singular cri de coeur sound, at once personal and universal. A star by most standards  - she has recorded for the Fresh Sound and Nuba labels, among others, and this year filled the Teatro Coliseum, a hall with nearly 2000 seats -  she is less known outside of Europe. At the show I witnessed, she was surrounded by a battery of strings and percussion, alternately deploying guitars, violins, cellos, banjos, oboe, hand drums, shakers and coloristic instruments. Her presentation was all about heartstrings and drama; she proved herself a populist with aristocratic elegance.

ECM artists Enrico Rava (trumpet) and Stefano Bollani (piano), separately graced the festival as part of a newly developed partnership between Barcelona and the Umbria Jazz Festival. Rava, who was the subject of an invitation-only Blindfold test conducted by Downbeat writer Ted Panken, appeared with his quintet, a lively group that captured the veteran hornman sounding deliberate and characteristically subversive. He is a sly instrumentalist, offering seemingly simple melodies that disguise his harmonic adventures. Trombonist Gianlucca Petrella is a perfect foil.

Bollani played solo, and in a set that lasted nearly 2 hours he demonstrated a kitchen- sink command of the piano rare among musicians of any genre. He is a staunch humanist, imbuing his play with daring and humor, pathos and wisdom, covering tunes by Michael Jackson, Harry Belafonte and the Beatles, among others. Bollani is a a consummate showman, thoroughly skilled in his ability  to charm and warm his audience. (He has some Chico Marx in him.) When he solicited requests from the house, he jotted down 10 of them before proceeding to carve his way through all, segueing from one to the next with linking passages that showcased his frisky wit and and improvisatory authority.

My brief, four-day trip to Barcelona provided a bounty of riches.  A city that produced the great architect Antoni Gaudi, the figurehead of Catalan Modernism, is now intent on showcasing a formidable festival of modernists who light the way on behalf of the international jazz and world music scene. The 43rd Voll-Damm Barcelona Jazz Festival provides the soundtrack for a Catalan culture that embraces the piquant allure of the sensory.


altJeff Levenson is a label executive, writer-producer, and jazz journalist. His affiliations include posts at Half Note, Sony, Warner Bros, Downbeat and Billboard. He currently produces the annual Thelonious Monk Instrumental Competition, and has authored and/or produced events for the NEA, the US State Department, the White House, the New School for Social Research and the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. His credits include collaborations with Michael Brecker, Herbie Hancock, Branford Marsalis, Bela Fleck, Arturo Sandoval, and McCoy Tyner. He has produced and/or supervised six Grammy albums - 2 winners, 4 nominees. He currently chairs the National Jazz Committee for the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, serves as Board Governor for its New York Chapter, and digs the company of jazz musicians.


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