WASHINGTON, June 14, 2015 – Following an opening set by Colombian harpist Edmar Castañeda at the Hamilton Thursday, Paquito D’Rivera took the stage and offered a poignant tribute to D.C. Jazz Fest founder and honorary life chairman Charley Fishman, honoring him for his decade of service to the festival, which is now underway.
Charley was Dizzy Gillespie’s last personal manager and producer and was credited with producing the opening and closing themes of Dizzy’s 1990 hit, “Winter In Lisbon,” despite not having a reputation as a musician. Paquito, in turn, was a Dizzy Gillespie sideman from 1989 to 1992 and accompanied Dizzy’s recordings of “Bird Songs” and “To Bird with Love.”
During the Cuban-born saxophonist and clarinetist’s inspired 1977 jazz cruise to Cuba, Paquito and his Irakere band had electrified the music world, ultimately winning a Grammy in 1979 for the best Latin performance that year. A decade later, Paquito helped Dizzy himself bring life to the Afro-Cuban genre of World Music.
Also one of the best standup comics in jazz, Paquito mentioned a 1998 call he got from Charley, who was putting together another touring band at the time. “Only a man with a big heart and vision could put together all the parts of a United Nations orchestra and make it work,” said D’Rivera during his tribute to Fishman, who was in the audience but too frail to make it to the stage due to persistent back pain.
After honoring Fishman, D’Rivera offered a closing set of classic Afro-Cuban world beat music that covered the gamut, ranging from his roots in Fidel Castro’s post-revolutionary island nation to well-known tracks culled from Paquito’s multiple Grammy award-winning albums over the years.
We’d be negligent, however, if we failed to discuss Thursday’s opening act. Jazz harp angel Edmar Casteñeda kicked off the evening’s festivities with a soothing hour-and-15-minute set that featured his unique and mystical electric harp technique. In his hands, the instrument seems to transport you to the Colombian rain forests from which Edmar emerged in 1994 when he made his big musical and cultural leap from Bogota to New York City.
During his set he paid tribute to his own spiritual roots and to “the One that gave me the gift to make music and the opportunity to love, life a prayer” by performing his original musical version of “Jesus de Nazareth!” (“Jesus of Nazareth!”)
Casteñeda played as if he were engaged in a blinding dervish at times, with his hands traveling up and down the harp strings in a blur of motion. He contrasted these electric highs with a melodic interlude of deeply mystical sounds that were perfectly complemented by his two sidemen, trombonist Marshal Gilkes and drummer Eric Dukes.
Edmar’s passion for Latin jazz collaborations hasn’t waned since I first saw him perform at the Carter Barron amphitheater with Pancho Sanchez during the 2010 DC Jazz Fest.
Appropriately, he paid tribute to his mentor Paquito D’Rivera after his Thursday opening set. “I always learn something new when I play with Paquito, and it’s an honor to be on the same stage,” said Castañeda as he turned over the mike to D’Rivera.