By W.P. Norton
Special to the Miami Herald International Edition
CABARETE, Dominican Republic — One thing to know about the annual jazz festival on the Atlantic coast of this Spanish-speaking nation of the Caribbean is that Latin jazz is only some of the jazz you are going to hear.
To be sure, the percussion-heavy rhythms of the Afro-Cuban jazz form can be said to have dominated the 19th annual Dominican Republic Jazz Festival that rang out in the principal towns of the world-famous North Coast province of Puerto Plata Nov. 4-9: The D.R.’s own Big Band Conservatorio Santo Domingo opened in Santiago Wednesday and the incredibly high-powered combo of Cuban percussionist Pedrito Martinez closed in Cabarete Sunday.
But you could also hear Puerto Rico’s David Sanchez Quintet, France’s Mario Canonge Trio and Israel’s Roy Assaf Trio. And the United States delivered the Student Loan String Band, renowned jazz bassist John Patitucci, and Boston’s Berklee Global Jazz Institute from the Berklee College of Music.
The two drummers, cellist, standing bassist, violinist, saxophonist, pianist and flamenco guitarist of the Berklee ensemble showcased particularly sophisticated and wide-ranging arrangements that expanded the definitions of jazz. For example, the student virtuosos opened their Friday and Saturday shows with a brief Arabic sounding composition, the emigration song “Stop by My House,” featuring Middle-Eastern vocal phrases from the group’s violinist, who hails from Jordan.
The number had a mournful, dreamlike quality that made you feel transported to somewhere like a peaceful Moroccan Kasbah, being called from the minarets to hear the Middle Eastern equivalent of a worshipful choir — instead of standing on a Caribbean beach a few hundred feet from the Atlantic ocean.
The audience of several hundred was rapt, and applauded with intensity. And why not? All great forms of music have the power to transport, to take you someplace else. And in one sense that was the point: getting people from there to here has been the economic strategy of the Dominican Republic for decades.
One New York critic remarked that the festival’s strong association with the Berklee School helped puts the Dominican Republic on the world map of desirable places for important jazz musicians to hang their berets.
Among its many sponsors is JetBlue Airways, whose interest in developing the D.R. tourism market is just as strong as the country’s ministry of tourism. The air carrier’s sponsorship of the festival is a sign that JetBlue thinks the festival can boost the number of travelers coming to the North Coast for “destination tourism” of a higher cultural caliber than the sealed-off all-inclusive, private-beach packages favored by the most affluent of visitors here. Indeed, no hotel rooms were said to be available in Cabarete over the weekend.
By comparison, Puerto Rico’s Heineken Jazz Festival is one of the better-known events of on the Latin America-Caribbean circuit, and it’s been going strong for around three decades. Panama has run its own jazz festival for a mere dozen years.
With the star power and prestige afforded by the Berklee connection, the Dominican Republic of jazz is putting itself on the world map of destinations worth visiting. And positioning itself for a very successful 20th anniversary next November.