On Sunday October 6, in the beautiful Riviera del Pacifico’s open air theatre,

four Baja bands and a San Diego group “turned the mutha out”.  The theatre, designed to hold 500 or so, was crammed with approximately 1,000 jazz fans sitting in aisles and spilling out onto surrounding gardens.

The University Autonoma de Baja California and Ensenada Jazz, particularly leader and keyboardist Sixto Rosas and his trombonist brother Francisco, are to be congratulated for organizing this annual event.  The beautiful and very soulful aspect of the afternoon is that the musicians play for the love of the music-nobody was paid.  Admission was free and the grateful fans showered the talented ensembles with love and enthusiastic applause for their very inspired and noble efforts.

I was as impressed with the audience as I was with the musicianship.  The 95% Mexicano audience made this event a very family affair.  Even the children sat with rapt attention for seven hours of those beautifully crafted sounds.  Each artist was respectfully rewarded with applause at the conclusion of their solos and all the “cats” grinned from ear to ear upon hearing the thunderous response at the end of their sets.

I am always surprised at how many jazz fans and excellent musicians there are in Baja California where jazz is not found on the airwaves or in clubs.  Marco Antonio Novelo of Hotel Las Rosas has earned jazz fan acrimony  for firing Ensenada Jazz from the only venue we had left to hear our music live.

The afternoon was kicked off by THE JAZZ JUNIORS.  Though still learning the switch from playing Rock and Roll and Cumbias, what they lacked “in chops” they made up for with enthusiasm.  My only negative is that medical doctor Marco Hintze, sang classics like Summertime, I Wish You Love and Satin Doll like the rock and roller he is.  Just “keep it in the pocket” doc!  All those swoops and swirls in his vocalizing were more than distracting.  The Gershwin brothers and Duke Ellington, if not turning over in their graves, would not have enjoyed the liberties taken on these classic jazz classics.

Following The Juniors was a very competent electronic group called Contra Punto (Counterpoint) from Tijuana.  The drummer definitely understood be bop, which is difficult for most latin drummers to grasp.  A lively set was performed by the capable Tijuanenses (Tijuanans) who knew what Duke Ellington meant when he said “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing”. These TJ home boys definitlely swung on standards like “Waltz for Debbie” and “The Joy of Spring”, My favorite of their performance was a hard driving, up tempo, rendition of “Caravan” .

My personal favorite of the Festival was a San Diego group called SAFAR, led by monster tenor player Steve Spencer.  I have listened to Steve perform with Ensenada Jazz for the past three years.  He is a half-time resident in Ensenada while devoting the other half to playing on a New Orleans riverboat.  I had never heard him front his own group and was amazed at how much more he could “spread out” when not confined to the arrangements of Ensenada Jazz.  This was a commanding performance and all the audience knew they were in the presence of gifted artists.

SAFARI was the only all acoustic group of the afternoon and their bass player could definitely “walk it”.  It was also refreshing to hear a bass player who knows the proper use of the bow on ballads.  The electronic bass will never replace that wonderful,  full, rich sound in the hands of a master.  Safari has a bad-ass bassist.

I am very proud of my friend Steve Spencer.  He has assimilated well into the Mexican music scene and culture.  Ensenadans refer to him as  “muy sencillo y humilde”, very simple and humble.  All the Mexican cats know he is “the bomb” and appreciate his humility and willingness to share his musical experience and talent with lesser schooled musicians.  Steve evoked laughter from the audience when introducing the artists in his band in Spanish.  He referred to his drummer as “chngon”, loosely translated a muthaf——.  Even the childen in the audience were bemused, but not shocked, at his use of a term he considered a compliment and not a profanity. Steve has, like most foreigners, learned the swear words first.

The funky surprise for me of the afternoon is a blues band from Mexicali called Fay Rosas.  I did not expect to hear such competent blues playing from non Afro-Americans.  This happened to me once before at the Monterey Jazz Festival in the early sixties.  Growning up in Blues clubs in Oakland, since the age of 15, I believed you had to be black to get those down home blues. When I saw Big Brother and the holding company, Charlie Musselwhite and The Paul Butterfield Blues Band in Monterey I snickered at what I expected to be a lame performance of white boys- until I heard the first eight bars.  These Mexicali boys “knocked me out” the same way with their interpretations of: Tower of Power, Bob Dylan and Muddy Waters’ compositions.  I especially liked the lead players use of the Wa Wa pedal to create those funky west coast blues overtones.

The favorites of Ensenadans closed the scheduled festival proceedings.  Ensenada Jazz has performed a 20 year odyssey of introducing Baja Californianos to “the music”. They demonstrated why they are so respected by this community with their awesome talent.  The height of their set was a dual between tenor player Steve Spencer of New Orleans/San Miguel and Chico Valdez, an alto player  from Mexicali.  The battle lines were drawn by leader Sixto Rosas who announced “from jump street” that this was going to be a whose got the best chops competition.  Sixto said that the loser would either eat tacos or hamburgers.  The audience loved it and showed no deference to the two performers.  In my book Steve was the clear winner but Chico is such a strong player that everyone agreed it shoud be a draw.

What a great and splendifferous afternoon.  Thanks to everybody who was part of putting this event together.  Especially the hard blowin, swingin cats on stage. Ya all did great. “Chingon” ya all was.

Mexicomatters staff writher. Check out our web site mexicomatters.com. “the complete guide to Mexico”.