Panama Jazz Festival
Courtesy Photo

On a mid-January’s Monday night in Panama City, some kind of harmonic, cultural, and sensorial convergence occurred as this scribe milled about a fourth-story balcony overlooking the Miraflores Locks of the famed Panama Canal. A gathering of folks connected to the Panama Jazz Festival, celebrating its tenth anniversary in January’s summery swelter, were hypnotized by the sight of the nearly century-old canal operation in motion. Perhaps nobody was as fascinated as jazz great Wayne Shorter, who stood ogling the ships slowly passing in the Panamanian night for a couple of hours. His musical allies Herbie Hancock and pianist/festival founder Danilo Pérez also stood, in varying states of awe.

Said awe shifted to the seductive musical pulse of an ensemble of hot young Panamanian percussionists, singers, and dancers, excelling in the national, folkloric Tamborito style. The evening felt like a perfectly ripe introduction to what makes this tiny knee joint of a Latin American country, a hugely important passageway for the world’s ocean-cheating maritime traffic, such a distinctive spot on the map.

It so happens that Panama City has also become a spot on the global jazz fest map in the past several years, in a part of the world not yet known for its serious jazz festival culture. All roads of credit and responsibility circle back to the dynamo pianist Pérez, best-known for his role in Shorter’s quartet for the past twelve years. The seemingly tireless dynamo is a kind of national hero in Panama. He also founded and runs this weeklong festival, which includes a strong educational component and factions from his place of employment back home in the U.S., Boston’s Berklee School of Music. (Semi-local note: the Pérez-led all-star group the Berklee Global Jazz Institute includes the wily and terrific trombonist from Ventura, John Egizi.)

On Tuesday morning of that week, an entourage joined Hancock in the mayor’s office, being fêted and treated with the key to the city before heading over a few blocks to the site of the Fundacion Danilo Pérez, a model program for educating underprivileged kids in the ways of jazz.

In the sprawling main venue of the Teatro Anayansi, the festival featured four main arena acts — Hancock, Bill Frisell (in his beauteous John Lennon–tribute attire), Peruvian Afro-Peruvian music royalty Susana Baca, and finished off with a brilliant performance by the Shorter Quartet, sounding better and more balanced on the improv-structural score than ever before. (Check out the brand-new Shorter album, Without a Net, by far the best recorded document of this band.) On opening night, a line of lithe models greeted VIPs and onlookers, clad in minimalist dresses made from past festival posters. In deeper aesthetic waters that night, Hancock stunned us all with a powerful solo piano set (he really has to go on meeting his instrument in this stripped-down yet expansive format).

As a tourist destination and jungle-rich locale (two-thirds of this country of four million people remains undeveloped), Panama packs a lot of punch. On one afternoon, a group of us visiting press people joined researchers for a field trip that managed to sum up several aspects of life here: After a lunch at a swanky resort in the otherwise economically-challenged city of Colon, we toured the Atlantic/Caribbean side of the canal, in Gatún, where the massive expansion of the canal is underway. We took a scenic cross-country train trip, which, given the lean midriff of this nation, took only 90 minutes, and passed by rugged swaths of jungle, and the ramshackle prison where former Panama leader/dictator Manuel Noriega now resides.

On the next day, it was off to Gamboa for a wildlife-seeking boat ride on the Chargres river, the waterway by which Spanish interlopers shipped their ill-gotten Incan gold. Animalia sighting scorecard: a few white-face monkeys in the trees, crocodiles and caymans slinking in the water, and a snail kite (bird). No pumas.

Back at the headquarters of Hotel El Panama, hot-burning late-night jam sessions kept many of us up past bedtime. By day, a nun convention at the hotel kept many guests in habits, while a bikini-clad model shoot pleasantly disrupted the breakfast room one morning. A massive swimming pool allowed leisure-seekers to swim up to the bar and down a Panama and/or Balboa beer… for journalism’s sake.

Festival #10 ended with a huge, free-to-the-public, nine hour micro-fest on a lawn of the former U.S. military base now owned by Panama and retooled as “City of Knowledge,” with another Panamanian hero, Ruben Blades, highlighting the roster. While news of the Panama Jazz Festival’s unique splendor has yet to disperse into the “household name” list of the world’s jazz festival circuit, it is one of those little festivals that could, and is.

AFRO-LATIN PULSE IN THE HOUSE: Back in the 805, some potent Afro-Latin sounds are headed our way, when Juan de Marcos and the Afro-Cuban All Stars pay a return visit to UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Tuesday, February 26. As their performance back in 2003 demonstrated, the All Stars pumps a lot of pre-Casto style sounds, dance-inducing, clave-pumping energy and tight interplay. The group is led and assembled by Juan de Marcos Gonzalez, who had much interaction and collaborative involvement with members of the Buena Vista Social Club, long before Ry Cooder paid a fateful visit to Havana. The show starts at 8 p.m. Call (805) 893-3535 or visit for tickets.


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