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Havana, Santiago? Does It Really Matter?
A look inside JazzFest International
Adrian Chamberlain, Times Colonist
Wednesday, June 26, 2002

Arguably the funkiest moment of Jane Bunnett's concert at JazzFest International was when a percussionist pulled out a weird little trumpet that sounded like an agitated cat with sinus problems. And I mean that in the good sense. The Cubans call it a "corneta China." It sounded absolutely marvelous, cutting through the septet's vigorous polyrhythms like a sabre through cheese.

"Havana Jane" has been collaborating with Cuban musicians for years, having made more than 40 trips to the country -- even before Ry Cooder. At the McPherson Playhouse on Tuesday night, she appeared with her Alma de Santiago band, the touring unit spawned by her recent Alma de Santiago disc. The music, a mix of Cuban and contemporary jazz styles, is rooted in the sounds of Santiago, which is birthplace to the camparsa (conga style).

Bunnett's band, not surprisingly, boasted two powerhouse Cuban conga players as well as a drummer on a conventional kit. The music was raw, hypnotic and mesmerizing. Bunnett, a gifted flutist and soprano saxophonist, played with great heart and directness -- often experimenting with traditional melodies, sometimes indulging in free jazz explorations and always plunging in with admirable verve and passion.

Her husband, trumpeter and fluegelhornist Larry Cramer, is in many ways seems the heart of the band. Cramer's soloing didn't lead the charge as did Bunnett's, but the musician -- an affable John Goodman/Fred Flintstone presence -- helped light a fire under the combo by yelling out encouragement and generally exhorting his cohorts on.

Perhaps the most welcome surprise was teenaged pianist David Virelles. This Cuban wunderkind has studied the jazz piano greats (he sounds a little like Keith Jarrett), and melds these influences with the rhythms and melodies of his homeland. Virelles is a musician with chance-taking creativity and drive, and is certainly a force to be reckoned with.

Bunnett and Virelles were at their most poignant weaving around one another during Lagrimas Negras (Black Tears), a gentle bolero with a beautiful, plaintive melody.

Nanaimo's Allison Crowe, a gifted young pop singer-songwriter influenced by Tori Amos and Jewel, seemed quite nervous about opening for Bunnett.

"I was expecting to get booed," she half-joked at one point. In fact, the crowd loved Crowe and her trio. Rightly so. Her ability to make herself intensely vulnerable in front of an audience -- paired with a big, open-throated voice --is a powerful combination. And it doesn't hurt that she as a precocious ability to write radio-friendly confessional ballads.

Her finale, a cover of Sarah McLachlan's Angel, won the hall over, especially when Crowe ended the tune with a extraordinarily elongated soulful wail. It was a risky move; the kind of absolutely over-the-top melisma a Joplin or Aretha might tackle on a good day. Yet Crowe pulled it off, displaying the kind of courage and willingness to take artistic risks that suggests her future is rosy indeed.

© Copyright 2002, Times Colonist (Victoria)