Lydia Liebman is a student at both Emerson College and Berklee College of Music, and CEO of Lydia Liebman Promotions. She is the publicist for the Berklee Global Jazz Institute, which she accompanied on its recent trip to the Panama Jazz Festival, where it participated in a series of concerts and clinics. The festival was founded in 2003 by Grammy-winning pianist Danilo Pérez, who is also the founder and artistic director of the BGJI. Read Liebman’s account of the festival below.
The festival unofficially kicked things off the previous night with the opening of the Danilo Pérez Jazz Club in Panama City. BGJI artistic director Danilo Pérez and BGJI managing director Marco Pignataro musically broke ground with a moving duo performance followed by a jam session with master saxophonist George Garzone.
The following morning, Danilo Pérez and George Garzone took part in the press conference, officially beginning the Panama Jazz Festival. Danilo explained the importance of the festival to the people of not just Panama, but all of Latin America: “This is not my festival—this is our festival for all of Latin America.” When BGJI faculty member George Garzone held the mic, he shared an anecdote about his first previous time in Panama, which was with Danilo in 1993. Garzone remarked especially about how Panama has changed and flourished over those 20-plus years due largely in part to the cultural exchange the festival promotes.
The rest of the day was a flurry of events spearheaded by the institute. Of note, Marco and Danilo presented a brand new credit program: for $250, students participate in five, two-hour seminars presented by BGJI faculty and earn one college credit toward a Berklee education. Other presentations included a saxophone clinic held by Garzone and a stirring performance by the BGJI.
The night culminated with a wonderful reception along the Panama Canal. If the first day is any indication of what’s to come throughout the week, it’s clear that the Panama Jazz Festival is going to be a fantastic success.
“There’s a Coltrane in every saxophonist here. There’s a Tony Williams in ever drummer here. Influence is fine but the reality is you,” said George.
The second day of the festival was just as smooth as the first. The BGJI students had a full day starting with a two hour clinic beginning at 9am. During the clinic, BGJI students worked with the PJF students on a variety of different techniques and tunes.
George Garzone led his own clinic for the Berklee credit program where he spoke about the importance of developing ones one sound and about his own discovery process. He offered up some valuable tidbits and words of encouragement to the attentive room. “There’s a Coltrane in every saxophonist here,” said Garzone, “and inspirations are important but the reality is YOU.”
Marco Pignataro held the third Berklee clinic of the day with his annual presentation about pedagogy that left the room inspired by its end.
The highlight of the day was the BGJI’s performance at the Danilo Pérez Jazz Club. The group, featuring saxophonists Edmar Colon and Gustavo D’Amico, guitarists Leandro Pellegrino and Carlos Capacho, pianist Takafumi Suenaga, bassist Alex Gasser, and drummer Jharis Yokley, performed four tunes: “Children of the Night,” “For No Reason,” an untitled tune by Eytan that features a Moroccan vibe, and “Toll Toll Toll,” which was written by Suenaga and inspired by the copious amount of toll booths along Massachusetts highways. The latter featured both Pignataro and Garzone and culminated in a “saxophone dual” between Pignataro, Garzone, D’Amico, and Colon. The sold-out audience offered a roaring ovation to the ensemble. Following its performance, the BGJI played the jam session with other PJF attendees and students.
Day 3 of the festival was the most active one yet as it was full of clinics, master classes, and performances. The first clinic was lead by bassist and BGJI faculty member John Patitucci for the Berklee credit program. From 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., the BGJI students were hard at work leading individual clinics. All the rooms were full with PJF students diligently recording the classes and asking questions. At the end of each class, the attendees talked with the BGJI and discussed the lessons. Overall, the classes went extremely well.
One of the afternoons highlights was an interview with saxophone legend Kenny Garrett led by executive director Patrica Zarate. The first half hour featured questions from Patricia, who is also an alto saxophonist. Garrett enthusiastically answered questions about his early exposure to jazz through the many Detroit saxophonists around him and shared his influences ranging from Sonny Criss to Hank Crawford. When asked about his experience with Miles Davis and Art Blakey, Garrett noted that with Miles he learned how to be free and how to blend, and with Blakey, how to be a leader and swing hard. The last half of the interview featured questions fielded from the audience. One reporter asked Garrett his opinion about the crisis Detroit is currently going through; Garrett replied that Detroit is actually a beautiful city with one of the only free large jazz festivals the United States.
After all the clinics, the evening was packed with concerts. First up at the Ateneo Theater was Nedelka Prescod joined by BGJI managing director Marco Pignataro and other Berklee faculty members and former Berklee/New England Conservatory students including pianist Kevin Harris, guitarist Tom Patitucci, bassist Ehud Ettud, and drummer Richie Barshay. Her set included a variety of originals and standards including crowd favorites “Besame Mucho” and “Afro Blue.”
The main event was none other than Kenny Garrett who gave an electric performance. High energy and captivating are words that could be used to describe the hour-and-a half set Garrett performed. Highlights included his 20-minute rendition of “J. Mac,” a tribute to saxophone master Jackie MacLean, which featured riveting solos from the whole band, and the closer that brought the audience to its feet and concluded after no less than 20 minutes of dancing and reverie. Finally, the evening ended at Danilo Pérez Jazz Club where Patitucci and his brother Tom played a set followed by a jam session.
Day 4 of the festival was a great one. Again, the day began with a clinic led by Marco Pignataro for the BGJI Credit Program. After the clinic, the BGJI had it easy with only a sound check before the evenings performance. At the Ateneo Theater, the BGJI performed an incredible set of music with master bassist John Patitucci. They performed a variety of tunes including a few tunes from John Patitucci’s repertoire including a fantastic rendition of ‘Afro Blue’. Danilo joined the BGJI to play piano on a few songs and even Danilo’s father, Danilo Sr, joined them to sing a beautiful bolero. Danilo played not just piano, but percussion instruments as well, marking it a truly unique evening.
As the last day of clinics and classes, Day 5 was a busy one. The BGJI Credit Program had their final class presented by Marco Pignataro and Richie Barshay and following that the class presented their final concert for the public. In the end, 16 students participated and gained credit toward a Berklee College of Music education. The day had two saxophone clinics- one with George Garzone, where he spoke particularly about the importance of leaving space when one plays, and the other with Marco Pignataro. The evening was punctuated by the incredible Danilo Perez Panama 500 performance at the Ateneo. After a set by soaring vocalist Liz Wright, Danilo took the stage with John Patitucci, drummer Adam Cruz, percussionist Roman Diaz and former BGJI member violinist Alex Hargreaves. The sold out crowd seemed thrilled with the performance of all new music. Particular highlights include a guest appearance by Liz Wright and a feature of his wife and alto saxophonist Patricia Zarate. After the concert, the BGJI stayed out into the early morning jamming at the Danilo Perez Jazz Club. Overall, the last formal day of the festival was a success.