Last updateFri, 22 Mar 2019 1pm

Jalisco Jazz Festival preaches the gospel of improvised music

It’s that time of year again, folks.  What time, you ask? Ramadan? Kwanzaa? Rosh Hashanah? To all those wild guesses I say: wrong, wrong, and wrong again.

pg24aIt is, in fact, time to pensively chain smoke un-filtered cigarettes, don ray-ban sunglasses and a thin black tie and - for the truly hard-core fan - break out that well-worn tourniquet and syringe.  Yes, the Jalisco Jazz Festival (JJF) is upon us in all its month-long glory (April 25-May 19), a period of intense jubilation involving the entirety of our massive metropolis, a collective bacchanal so all-encompassing and overwhelmingly transcendent as to cause mariachi musicians – their chosen genre unseated by America’s art form as the state’s most emblematic musical form – to set fire to their guitarrónes and trumpets in a fit of jealous rage.

Or at least, that’s the scenario that might have flashed before festival co-founder and executive director Gilberto Cervantes’ eyes while he sat at a table with three other festival grandees during the event’s inaugural Plaza Andares-adjacent press conference on Monday, April 16.

The bleak reality is that jazz will never, ever be as popular as mariachi in Jalisco.  Or K-Pop in Korea.  But that doesn’t stop Quixotic souls like Cervantes (insert a wink to literature nerds here) from mounting jazz festivals around the world, scrambling to cobble together enough funding each year to keep their sputtering artistic organisms thrashing about to stay afloat in the dark waters of bankrupt oblivion.

We salute that special breed of masochism; without it cities around the world would aspire to nothing more culturally edifying than that which guarantees a handsome return on investment – the musical version of Kraft singles.    

The JJF was started by musicians Cervantes and Sara Valenzuela in 2006.  Back then, their nascent cultural happening occurred over one weekend and consisted of a handful of clinics and a few scattered concerts. The next year, the pair created non-profit outfit Fundacion Tonica, the main organizational body of the festival.  One weekend of modestly proportioned programming and educational opportunities has become in the ensuing years, what it is today, a multi-week cultural kraken.

Cervantes, as per his status as head of the JJF mafia, did the bulk of the talking during Monday’s press conference, but a breath of fresh air – not that the air was especially stagnant – was offered by Eliud Hernandez, a pierced and tattoo’d young man clad in t-shirt, jeans and brightly covered converse sneakers, liaison of Y2k2018 Live Looping Festival.  The Y2k Looping Festival, an event started in early-00s Northern California, since spread to 21 countries around the globe, features artists who mix live instruments with technological wonders which allows them to create multi-layered, often improvised compositions in real time.

The alliance between the two festivals may indicative that Cervantes is interested in widening the festival’s umbrella to include what to many jazz purists might consider phlistinic anathema.

“Some people have said to me ‘That’s not jazz! Why are you programing that shit?’ To which I respond: it’s all creative music,” said Cervantes with a roguish smile.


Loop Festival liaison Hernandez seconded that sentiment, adding that, essentially, musicians shouldn’t segregate themselves due to perceived mutual aesthetic exclusivity, but instead build bridges to unite and strengthen the musical community as whole.

To this end, artists from eight different countries who have taken part in Y2K in the past will perform in Guadalajara, May 3-5.  Nations represented include Mexico, United States, Netherlands, Argentina, the U.K., France, the Czech Republic, and perhaps most interestingly, Pakistan.

Among the musicians offering something somewhat closer to straight-ahead jazz over the course of the festival’s run is Magos Herrera, a Mexican singer who has collaborated with, among others, JJF stalwart performer and educator Aaron Goldberg, trumpeter Tim Hagans, guitarist Adam Rogers and bassist extraordinaire John Pattituci.  While he won’t be leading a band this year, pianist Goldberg will nonetheless be appearing in a supporting role during Herrera’s set, Wednesday, April 25, 8 p.m.

Another festival highlight is the Alex Mercado Trio, lead by Berklee-educated Mexican pianist Mercado and featuring Gabriel Puentes on drums and Israel Cupich on bass.  During the concert (Thursday, May 3, 9 p.m.) a special award, the “Reconocimiento Tonica,” will be given to Mexican pianist Olivia Revueltas.

Revueltas, daughter of writer and activist Jose Revueltas, is a revered figure in Mexico not only for her status as an important exponent of jazz music in her home country, but as an advocate for under-represented, marginalized indigenous groups.  In fact, the feisty legend only recently returned to Mexico after being effectively exiled for her social justice activities.

For Cervantes, the Jalisco Jazz Festival has never just been about music.  Rather, it’s about, as he is wont to say, “improvisation as a way of life, improvisation in all walks of life.”

After all – and the GDL Reporter is knowingly treading on some seriously trite territory here – life doesn’t come with a carefully worded script;  we are all, day in and day out, blowing our own ad-libbed solos, which blend with a billion other personalized cadenzas being performed simultaneously around the world.  The resultant blending of voices, like jazz, can be cacophonous or harmonious – or both simultaneously.  Consider it no exaggeration, then, when we say that jazz is no less than the harnessing – nay, the bottling – of the expressive chaos which governs the human race’s existence.

JJF Tickets can be bought at the festival website, jaliscojazzfestival.com.  However, free shows abound at various public spaces around the city.  Keep an eye out for these offerings on the same website.

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