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Jazz from the Fringes: Week 1 at the Guatemala International Jazz Festival

J.D. Swerzenski
Contributing Writer

Jazz is a fundamental American Art Form. You don’t need a 10 disc Ken Burns documentary to be at least aware of this fact; it’s sort of at the core of jazz’s whole story. But then jazz doesn’t belong to the States; some of the most forward thinking music in the genre has been produced in spots all over the globe, especially in recent years. So what’s the state of jazz outside the US? I decided to check in on the outside the States state of jazz from the not-so-likely locale of Guatemala City, Guatemala.

My mark was the 14th Annual International Jazz Festival, sponsored appropriately enough by the Instituto Guatemalteca Americano. Pulling together performances by a range of American, European and Central American artists, the Festival was certainly not short of ambition. A sprawling, multi-city, month long event, it had already been in full swing by the time I got around to attending. The proceedings for the evening I happened upon featured the Italian delegation of saxophonist Marco Castelli and his trio. Walking in mid-performance proved a culture shock of no small means. You ever play that game in kindergarten where you line up in a row and someone at whispers a secret and each person down the line has to pass it on, and by the end the original message is completely different? That’s the best I can describe hearing jazz played by a trio of Italians at a festival in Guatemala.

The drum-less trio worked off a completely different set of rules, tossing in Verdi opera medleys, Tom Waits covers and all manner of perplexingly random material into their set. Castelli in particular was a force unlike any I’d seen, a gifted and incredibly flamboyant player whose chief goal often seemed to bring the saxophone back to it’s roots as circus performance instrument. Things settled down a bit, with the band settling into a nice rendition of “Misty.” And just when the pianist would settle into a solo and transport me to my normal jazz show mentality, the strobe lights would start going off. No one in the audience seemed particularly phased by the light show, or that it might seem a strange thing to add on top of a ballad.

Perhaps sensing my rising cynicism, the band pulled out “In a Sentimental Mood,” brazenly opting for the John Coltrane/Duke arrangement. If there was ever an argument to be made for the universal appeal of jazz, this was it. Castelli ditched the circus antics and presented a stunningly beautiful reading: simple, rich in tone, and achingly poignant. From there the Italians had me, even through the otherwise baffling decision to pull out “The Baby Elephant Walk” for their encore. But then there may be a bit of a national obsession with this song that I’m not fully hip to, because it brought the house to its feet.

As far as first brushes with international jazz, the show was fruitful: surprising in ways I expected and some I could have never imagined. I’m off next week to catch the pride of Espana: guitarist Marcelino Galan and his band The Gift. Here’s imagining where that will take me.

J.D. Swerzenski is a staff writer for Nextbop at Art of Cool and a contributor to the San Antonio Current and Red Bull Music Academy Magazine.