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Jazz from the Fringes: Week 3 at the Guatemala International Jazz Festival

J.D. Swerzenski
Staff Writer

It's the thrilling conclusion of the Guatemalan International Jazz Fest, and I'm back in my balcony perch in the Teatro Dick Smith in downtown Guatemala City to catch the Native Jazz Quartet. The star attraction of the band, other than their American-ness (a big deal in this country), is the presence of drummer and vibraphonist Jason Marsalis (playing strictly the later for tonight.) Having a Marsalis, really any of them, on your bill is sort of the jazz equivalent of having a Renoir or Matisse in the collection; it just lends an air of legitimacy. Naturally, the place is packed.

Marsalis may carry the most name recognition (okay, all the name recognition), but the NJQ proved a strong unit from every angle. They're American in the sort of wonderfully diverse way that suited the international aim of the Festival so well: Jason Marsalis from New Orleans, Alaskan Native-American Ed Littlefield on drums and vocals, Filipino-born pianist Reuel Lubag and Swedish bassist Christian Fabian. Their first (and only) album, saw each member lend their own cultural vocabulary through their original compositions, making NJQ: Stories an enjoyably eclectic set.

Their approach for tonight seems to be a bit different, taking the role of Jazz Ambassadors a la Louis Armstrong in the ‘60s. Appropriately, things started out in New Orleans, with the band easing their way into the spiritual "A Closer Walk With Thee". For all the great jazz I'd caught at the Festival so far, I had yet to truly hear the blues; the Quartet had no problem in fixing that for me. The band then dipped into originals, starting with Littlefield's "The Hook Song" (sung by the drummer in an Alaskan-Indian language he later informed me is only spoken by 350 people.) Fabian's "The Flood" rushed in next, a piece that was the bassist's song in name only. Following the carefully structured opening head, Marsalis and Littlefield grabbed hold and ran, together weaving some of the most intricate percussive interplay I'd ever witnessed. Marsalis proved his facility at the vibes on his release from last year In a World of Mallets; however watching him attack the instrument in person was unlike anything that record could capture. Thankfully my balcony perch lent me the view to catch Marsalis' his speed, agility and sheer force all birds-eye. He found a capable sparring partner in Littlefield, a wonderfully melodic drummer who continually pushed, dropped or upended the beat to keep Marsalis on his toes. And then, after roughly 5 minutes of their rhythmic tango, they ended on a Bill Withers quote. I doubt more than a handful in the audience caught the reference, but "Use Me" proved a cheeky cherry on top.

Sensing a come down was in order, the NJQ invited up Guatemala City's own Imox Jazz to join the band for a number of songs. There was certainly an aptitude gap between the two bands, though Imox' collection of originals bridged things nicely between the younger act and the vets. Best of the bunch was "Freedom", a Return to Forever-inflected jam that featured Imox singer/saxophonist Rosse Aguilar pulling off a pretty impressive Flora Purim impression. Again, Littlefield and Marsalis hijacked the track for a thrilling back-and-forth percussive interlude that summoned shades of Milt Jackson and Billy Cobham on "Little Sunflower" (even better was watching the Imox bassist hang on for dear life as Marsalis and Littlefield swirled around him).

"Freedom" would have proved a killer closer, but the crowd instead got an all-hands-on-deck version of "Second Line:" a great choice on paper which was unfortunately upended by the Imox drummer's inability to hold down a second-line beat. Limp closer aside, the NJQ's closing set as a whole was as good a closer to the Festival as could be hoped for, bringing together so many of the threads from throughout the festival that displayed jazz's continuing ability to bridge together musical styles and traditions of all stripes, no matter the time or place.

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.