By: Estefanía Romero
The Festival Internacional de Jazz Armando Núñez (FIJAN), directed by Mario Montes, accomplished everything it promised and way much more. I’m talking about a very uncommon jazz festival in the beautiful Chihuahua, a city in Northern Mexico. Here are my insights…
The Musical Jewels Featured By The FIJAN
I must start this comment by highlighting two of the principal concerts: Jazz House Collective, and José Gurría Cárdenas conducting the Big Band Jazz de Chihuahua, at the Parque Barrancas del Cobre (Copper Canyon Adventure Park), a freaking paradise!
I’ve mentioned before how Jazz House Collective is probably the hottest jazz band in Mexico today. Every show by them is way better than their last one (this might seem logical in other countries, but it’s not in my surreal and beloved Mexico). The hard studying by its members is reinforced by their great friendship, which allows a strong communication when they are delivering their own music. Moreover, these guys come from different Mexican states, which makes them completely different from a cultural perspective, so they bring the sounds of their diverse origins into jazz, thus creating a very colorful and creative new music. Also, they bring a particular energy and a great performance to every show. Even their funeral march sounded to the bones, recalling the sadness in the New Orleans burial parades music, related to the ones you hear in the traditional Mexican small towns, and so recalling that both of these come from very similar places.
Just before them, there was José Gurría, who presented a Third Stream concert: symphonic music –in this case, contemporary–, with jazz elements (do you remember Stravinsky liked jazz too?), adding Mexican folklore, very similar to what Silvestre Revueltas (a fundamental Mexican composer for your list) used to create. Some parts of Gurria have a little bit of Leonard Bernstein on them, he took me into this part of West Side Story, where a simple swing on the drums works as the base for multiple harmonies, playing with colors and shapes. Gurría also shows free jazz and some free improvisation, which is well adjusted into his discourse, something that not every composer is able to balance.
Gurría is a craftsman when conducting. Every intention, each transition, every volume has a plan of its own (I mean, every conductor should make sure of this, but not everyone does). His shows are very profound experiences.
Another plethoric moment was presented by Dos Caminos, a guitar duet, by Iván Almanza and Itzac Fernández. These are magicians when it comes to connection within the music and between themselves because they actually listen to each other. You can tell Almanza comes from classical music, and both have great instruction in jazz matters, as much as they navigate rock, world music, and the need for meditation towards music. It was really exciting to listen to the guitar as a rhythmic instrument, as much as a melodic one; a measured use of pedal effects, even looping; and a great search for new timbres. They also went further on their repertoire, by not only performed classical standards nowadays; and part of what makes them special is that they didn’t waste the same old cadences in jazz, they were trying harder to find new discourses, coming from their soul but also their intellectual baggage. These guys are virtuosos, and even if we got a few not very well adjudgments in their transitions, worthy of an intimate, safe, kind and warm atmosphere, created in that coffee shop, named Kaldi Café, where the audience was also part of the emotional performance, given the small space, permitting the experience of art from a very different perspective, close to those that people could have in the New York small bars where modern jazz started to shape.
FIJAN Cares About The Formation Of Its Artists
This was evident since the festival’s opening, with the jazz ensemble of the Maestría en Producción Artística, de la Universidad Autónoma de Chihuahua (UACH) students, giving them a spot to present their original works and to show their creative resources while improvising.
Then there was the Big Band Capital, conducted by Alfredo Flores. We must respect a project which aim is to create and enhance a youth orchestra. However, we must admit that even though these kids are technically able to perform the themes and improvisations, there should be emotion in their performance. As their conductor moved it seemed very much as if nothing happened at all; also, the kids didn’t seem to be enjoying the music, they looked more as if they were doing homework… maybe it wasn’t how they actually experienced it, but it was definitely what they projected. The grownups should make kids conscious of what they are playing and the intentions they should infuse into their interpretations; a while ago, I read a quote by a music professor and researcher (I’m sorry for not remembering the name and source) mentioning that most of the music schools all over the world are lacking to provide kids a notion about intention while they perform, and Mexico should work a lot on it as well. There was a sublime moment though, when their saxophone player, who was a powerful and well-qualified girl, performed Angel Eyes (what a great election).
More standards were shown by the Ensamble de Jazz de la Facultad de Artes de la UACH, and the Ensamble de la Universidad Autónoma de Ciudad Juárez (UACJ). We may applaud the fact that the second one dared to go further by incorporating some rapping in Spanish. By the way, bravo to its trumpeter, he certainly rocks all the jazz eras through his instrument.
In reference to the headliners, the audience and the community of music students showed a lot of enthusiasm towards the participation of the international artists: Brad Leali, and the University of North of Texas jazz ensemble, both fundamental for us to keep expanding our musical universe.
Another relevant aspect of the educational focus of the FIJAN was inviting Gurría as conductor for the Big Band Jazz de Chihuahua, who gave all of him in every rehearsal, taking plenty extra hours, even after midnight, to make his approach perfect, instructing and guiding the musicians into perfection, and eventually creating a sound and a well configurated machinery that only a few orchestras get to reach.
In addition, even though most of the jam sessions weren’t as crowded by musicians, as in other cities with a longer jazz tradition (where obviously, plenty of jazz players live), these small musical gatherings represent a channel for the new jazz consumers in Chihuahua, who are now getting involved with the classic social interactions in a jazz concert… they are now absorbing the jazz culture.
Finally, Chihuahua is investing to keep relevant jazz characters living here, as the guitar player and long career jazz professor, Roberto Sánchez-Picasso, who, after a few months of starting a life in the city, had many and remarkable participations in the festival.
A Great New Sound: 3er Camino (Also Known As The Jazz Ensemble Of The Universidad Autónoma de Querétaro)
Well… wow. These guys are a huge, wonderful surprise (I hate superlatives when writing a review, but this is a must). The power of their innovation has everything to do with Christian Martínez and his compositions. Each of his themes is shaped with narrative, something that plenty of jazz players and composers tend to forget about. The climax on every piece by Martínez represents what music must be for: the catharsis of a story created in the correct architecture of sounds, that goes by banishing into its end, also with artistry and balance.
When 3er Camino placed a saxophone at the front, about to star in a ballad, anyone would have thought that a Kenny G sound alike was about to enter the room, but it wasn’t the case. A slow precious theme, with depth and colors, got to show us the potent love the composer feels for his niece, to whom this piece was dedicated. An honest tear came down my cheek while listening to what the composer and the sax player were able to accomplish here. 3er Camino has a big emotional power in their creative hands.
Using a lot of African percussions, different saxophones… they showed a big interest in connecting with their audiences, without being condescending, such as did the author to whom they made a homage: Dizzy Gillespie.
There are plenty of jazz proposals in Mexico, but I can gladly say that 3er Camino has a lot to convey to us.
Jazz And Inclusion: Rarámuris, Purépechas…
Migration is a historical issue that, like every human matter, can also be told through music and poetry. Under this premise, José Gurría Cárdenas presented Up Against a Wall (Or The Blissful Search For Sublime Mediocrity: Episode III) [originally penned for Arturo O’Farrill & The Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra], as a musical metaphor to explain “the difficulty to understand those in the other side of the frontier”, as the author said. He dedicated this composition to “migrants around the world: past, present, and future”.
Up Against a Wall is a contemporary opus, which added sounds that evoke prehispanic times, by using a lot of flute and simple percussions that demand silence and introspection; all of this as the background of a few lines written by the poet Patricio Hidalgo, which were translated to the native language Rarámuri and read during the FIJAN by the Rarámuri poet, Lorenzo Moreno Pajarito. Before his presentation, Lorenzo spoke about the situation of many Tarahumaras: “Many of us never come back… migration is saddening”.
It’s interesting to notice that, even if this is a completely different situation, it made me think about the beatnik poets speaking up for social matters, using jazz as their background, improvising the combination between words and music, freely.
And then it came the concert by Efrén Capiz and jazz the teachers of the Arts Faculty (UACH). Capiz is one of the most important figures of jazz in México, thanks to his teachings, Michoacán jazz broadened its jazz culture. He arranged and played pirecuas (songs by indigenous Purépechas) into jazz and blues. He opened his show performing some zapateado: part of his great artistic formation involves Mexican folklore dancing.
This combination of Mexican artistry and jazz was a leit motiv during the FIJAN, a strong statement of being a welcoming place for cultures inclusion, and musical diversity.
Jazz To Enjoy, To Teach, To Talk About…
Besides aesthetic experiences, the FIJAN also held master classes with the headliners, as well as jazz talks and round tables.
The jazz talks featured themes that are new for our communities in Mexico, like “The philosophy of blues”, with commentaries not made by musicians, but by students of the bachelor in English Language; and “How do we listen?”, a fundamental matter for everybody, lectured by José Gurría.
I felt honored to participate in the first round table, which had a focus on the very uncommon careers of three women in Mexico: Paulina Mercado, jazz instrumentalist and music manager; María Vázquez, jazz guitar player; and myself, being a jazz journalist, critic and researcher. The other round table made it possible for a group of experts: Miguel Almaguer, composer, conductor and writer; Iván Almanza, guitar jazz player, Master in arts and UACH professor; and Karlo Mireles, drummer and director of the Ensamble de Jazz UACJ; who talked about what a Mexican professional artist has to go through, breaking clichés, and providing the students with great advice for their personal and professional development.
Jazz In Chihuahua? Who Was Armando Núñez?
According to Mario Montes, “there has been jazz in Chihuahua since the genre was born, which has to do with it being frontier with the United States. Orchestra musicians have been important in music and in jazz, such as Tino Contreras, Miguel Muñoz, Rogelio Delgado, Armando Núñez, and many others”.
Núñez, also known as “Mandis”, passed away during the COVID pandemic in 2021. Everybody, in every event of the FIJAN spoke extensively about how amazing, brilliant, and great human being Mandis was. He studied composition, he loved rock, and he became a jazz advocate during most of his life. His work as a teacher led to a very strong generation of jazz teachers in Chihuahua, who are now in charge of promoting, performing and teaching jazz in the city, in Mandis name.
FIJAN Helps Art Moving Forward
The FIJAN is a place that favors reflection, camaraderie; it’s a new house to share ideas and visions from different worlds. It accomplished all its promises, and more…
This festival occurred in great venues and a unique natural beautiful scenery: Barrancas del Cobre (Copper Canyon); and I must add: distinct to the classical setting of jazz in Mexico: Xalapa and Mexico City, providing glances to new ecosystems with visual paradises, and new anatomies (all people in Mexico are beautiful but we are all very different given all the incredible mix of races in our history), thus allowing a privileged group of artists to be part of an experience we’ll never forget: new adventures, new horizons, elemental for creativity and new ideas. This also made an impact on the artists from Chihuahua.
The FIJAN made it possible to create plenty of collaborations, reencounters –in a few cases– and new friendships to last, among creatives and people interested in promoting art. The musicians had the opportunity to jam with other ensembles and to gather not only through music, but also on a human level. This, in the long run, with perseverance, is going to reshape the way we live jazz in Mexico.
A very important thing to highlight was the hospitality, high quality, and warmth of the Hotel Highland Chihuahua, having Stephanie Villalobos at its head. This is something that all the festival visitors (maybe even more, the many of us who traveled for more than 10 hours to get to Chihuahua) perceived as a very valuable experience. This unusual framing gave the artists the chance to arrive with enough time to rest and give great performances, filled with all their energy, but it also gave us moments and space for gathering and artistic exchange, enhancing ties among us. This festival is certainly becoming a hub with an imminent future, that will bring more and more audiences to be part of it.
Villalobos, as much as the Hotel Misión Tarahumara, the Parque Barrancas del Cobre and the Secretaría de Turismo de Chihuahua, gave great support to the Arts Faculty of the UACH, with Mario Montes and his team, to make the FIJAN 2023 a goddamn wonderful experience.
By the way, visit Chihuahua! Here are the cool places I got to meet during the FIJAN 2023:
- Kaldi Café
- Casa Chihuahua
- Downtown Bistrobar
- Teatro de Cámara Fernando Saavedra
- Teatro de los Héroes Chihuahua
- Parque Barrancas del Cobre
- Hotel Highland Chihuahua
- Hotel Misión Tarahumara
- Hotel Central Boutique