Highlights of Lisbon Jazz Fest, August 2019

Trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, rapper Kokayi, and Origami HarvestTrumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, rapper Kokayi, and Origami Harvest

LISBON – For a third year in a row, we attended the annual Jazz em Agusto festival of new and improvised music at the lovely, park-like setting near the Plaza España, where the Gulbenkian Foundation operates a broad range of cultural activities.

This year’s theme was Resistance, and the headliner in the festival’s first half featured American guitarist Marc Ribot’s project of the same name. We only arrived for the second half – eight concerts from Aug. 8-12, the main one in the gorgeous open-air amphitheater that offers a
dramatic setting for creative musical expression.

The most thrilling concert of the first two nights was delivered by drummer Tomas Fujiwara and his Triple Double formation, with drummer Gerald Cleaver, electric guitarists Mary Halvorson and Brandon Seabrook, trumpeter Ralph Alessi and cornetists Taylor Ho Bynum. The interplay among those with similar instruments gave this concert a special flavor and intensity. It was compelling, artful, and among the most memorable in my experience as a jazz writer.

I was blown away! Intriguing melodies, high-energy delivery, original solos that fit well in the overall development added up to what seemed like a never-ending display of joyful creativity.
Seabrook was on fire, playing standing up, punctuating his music with his sculpting
attack and tonal explosions. Halvorson, with her guitar over her knee, was less audible in the mix, although we did hear some colourful, melodic explorations from her. Bynum too was on fire, playing a leadership role in the band and injecting exploratory burst into the mix, while Alessi was more lyrical.

A lengthy drum duet that was all harmony and complicity was among the highlights. The encore showcased each musician playing a few bars in series.

The big draw was the closing concert by trumpeter-composer Ambrose Akinmusire and his
Origami Harvest project. The amphitheater was close to sold out for this jazz-hip hop mix that spoke to the festival theme of resistance. This was no agit-prop – The music and lyrics were developed by Akinmusire to reflect the experience of being American in these times, especially for blacks.  Rapper Kokayi’s range and vocal majesty resonated with the depth and scope of that experience. It is a genre-busting ensemble, with drummer Justin Brown, pianist Sam Harris, and the Mivos string quartet injecting a contemporary classical and dream-like quality to the group sound.

The focus was on Kokayi, whose first raps rang out with positive keywords. Then the music and word images turned darker and more urgent. The searing beauty of Akinmusire’s horn and pianist Harris’ two-fisted dissonance dovetailed with Kokayi’s word pictures – “Cut down, get down! … No, no, no, no, no … He said, she said … ID, ID, ID, ID, ID, gotta get him.”

The concert was reaching a climax when the rain intensified and audience members began to leave, seeking shelter under nearby trees, as others gathered on the stage to hear Kokayi call out the name of young and innocent victims – Trayvon Martin, Michael Grown, Oscar Grant. He ended with a blast at the U.S. president, calling him “racist, homophobe, xenophobe.” Seeing the audience surrounding the musicians on stage in these closing moments was moving and memorable.

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