Guimarães Jazz Fest Doesn't Play It Safe
"Aqui Nasceu Portugal," says a sign on the 1,000-year-old stone tower in Guimarães' historic city center. "Here Portugal was born." The decisive battle of Portuguese independence took place in the shadow of the castle wall in 1128. And because of this, Guimarães remains one of Portugal's most important cities, even if its 52,000 inhabitants don't make it one of the largest.
If anything, its smaller size makes the city more determined to be a cultural landmark. To that end, A Oficina, the Guimarães' primary cultural curator, programs events year-round, including Guimarães Jazz, which marked its 28th year with performances Nov. 7-16.
For 10 nights, the festival presented single concerts at Centro Cultural Vila Flor; several featured Portuguese artists, but the bulk of the performers were jazz musicians of international renown and progressive mien. The first three nights, for example, included saxophonist Charles Lloyd and his Kindred Spirits quartet, drummer Antonio Sánchez's Migration, and the avant-garde piano duo of Vijay Iyer and Craig Taborn. Like its host city, the festival is small but audacious.
The festival's back half, which began Nov. 12, started with one of the Portuguese features: Porto-based trio Sonoscopia. These guys immediately demonstrated that the festival was not playing it safe. Their swirling, noisy freeform aesthetic found electric bassist Gonçalo Almeida sliding a small aluminum pan across his fretboard and emitting gnarled, queasy distortion—like factory machinery. Meanwhile, drummer Gustavo Costa and saxophonist Julius Gabriel took on folk qualities. The drums alternated freeform cacophony with Iberian traditional rhythms, sometimes played on the array of gongs sitting beside him, while the saxophonist, though he at times shrieked, drew on the blues.
The next night brought saxophone icon Joe Lovano and Trio Tapestry, with pianist Marilyn Crispell and drummer Carmen Castaldi. They were no less challenging than Sonoscopia, though they were less stormy. Castaldi in particular was a very careful, even minimal player, who emphasized his toms, though it didn't stop him from creating waves of rhythm with Crispell on "Rare Beauty." Lovano, who's capable of extreme energy, instead was focused on complex melodies. And Crispell, deeply influenced by Cecil Taylor, was a color player here, whose only explosions came during the final few tunes like "Catch Me If You Can" and "Sparkle Lights."
Swedish vocalist Lina Nyberg was more accessible, but perhaps a surprise. The billing indicated "Lena Nyberg Quintet and Orchestra," which seemed to augur a big band. Instead, a 40-piece symphony orchestra from Guimarães held the stage, performing Nyberg's drama-filled Terrestrial suite with lushness and a great deal of passion, while her quintet (especially guitarist David Stackenäs) provided forceful, often sinister shading). Drummer Rudy Royston, on Nov. 15, was more accessible as his quintet worked sublimely through its 2018 Flatbed Buggy. "It's a celebration of time and motion, movement," he said, before playing through the album almost unbroken. As expected for a drummer, the music was groove-heavy, but highly melodic—especially any time accordionist Gary Versace stepped up to the plate.
The festival saved its best for last. Canadian saxophonist and composer Andrew Rathbun brought his 20-piece Large Ensemble to perform 2018's glorious The Atwood Suites, inspired by and in tribute to writer Margaret Atwood. The full contralto voice of Luciana Souza, who sang on the recording, was the one element missing from this performance—though soprano Aubrey Johnson (who also appeared on the album) stepped in quite ably. With thrilling solos by saxophonist Quinsin Nachoff and guitarist Ricardo Pinheiro, as well as feature work throughout the concert by flugelhornist Tim Hagans, Rathbun and The Atwood Suites were easily the crown jewel of the festival's final five nights.
Tenor saxophonist Geof Bradfield and his Chicago-based quintet—which might have been the hardest-working musicians at the event—served as the Guimarães Jazz's artist-in-residence. And during the first half of the festival, Bradfield led a series of big band workshops, then directing them in a concert; in the second half, his quintet performed an early evening concert, and four of its members (minus guitarist Scott Hesse) participated in Rathbun's ensemble performance.
But the Bradfield quintet did its real magic during the festival's final three nights at a small performing space called Conv'vio Associação Cultural. At midnight, Bradfield, Hesse, trumpeter Russ Johnson, bassist Clark Sommers and drummer Dana Hall played a one-hour set of hard swinging post-bop, then opened up the floor to a jam session. The house was packed every night, in no small part thanks to young local musicians, and the atmosphere in the little room was crackling. The concerts at CCVF were the face of the festival, but these late-night jams were its beating heart.