The 35th Jazz Plaza 2020 opened with an explosive tribute to one of the greatest names in Afro-Cuban music: Juan Formell & Los Van Van. It was directed by pianist and arranger Dayramir González Vicet. It was a never-before event, not to be forgotten. Ever. Listening to the music that we heard on January the 14th of 2020 at Sala Covarrubias [Teatro Nacional] on that balmy night one could almost feel the resident spirit of the great Juan Formell all evening. The show opened with shadowy figures taking their place on stage, shortly followed – in the darkness – the silence broken by the warm, singular sound of the piano. Quite soon, in the smoke-filled stage the inimitable Brenda Navarrete appeared, as if out of the mystical cloud. She began to chant prayers for the spirit of Juan Formell, ending in the de rigueur, coded message [by accompanying herself on the bàtá], to The Divine to descend upon earth and bless the music that we were about to hear. As arc light after arc light illuminated the musicians on centrestage, Dayramir González Vicet began to turn up the heat – and the visceral excitement – in the already over-heated atmosphere of the auditorium.
For music aficionados who were descending on Havana from North America, other countries in South America and Europe there was a great expectation for the 2020 edition of Jazz Plaza, the international Jazz festival in Cuba, the largest island country in the Caribbean sea. It was more than a Jazz festival, actually; more like a cultural event that acknowledged the enormous contribution that Cuba made – and continues to make – to the continuum of music. That year, it was fitting to acknowledge one such contribution – that of Juan Formell and his iconic music, spread across the musical universe by Mr Formell’s iconic ensemble, Los Van Van.
To the extent that he is one of the youngest generation of pianists and musicians [and to some who may not have heard enough about him] Mr González Vicet may have seemed like a surprise choice to pay homage to Mr Formell. But any thoughts that this was going to be anything but memorable was soon dispensed with no sooner than, with the fire and fury of thunderous percussion, rumbling bass, a full-throated brass and woodwind section, tempered by the eloquent strings of the Camerata Romeu, and Mr González Vicet’s dazzling pianism exploded with the music of “Tu Decisión Cuál Es”, a sensuous instrumental number with just a chanting chorus line. But this was only the beginning.
For a little over an hour the programme unfolded with song after song that the audience – with full throat – sang along on chorus after chorus. It soon became clear that this was no ordinary opening concert brought to stage by a neophyte. Mr González Vicet immediately proved himself a worthy music director, who commanded the disparate musicians – and celebrated guests who took to the stage from time to time – with a view to paying handsome tribute to the legendary Mr Formell and Los Van Van. At the end of the hour-and-a-quarter the energy level of musicians and audience ascended well beyond the rafters as the extraordinary programme unfolded, setting a magnificent tone for the whole festival.
A year later we have a record of that event – well… the music that was played at any rate. Producciones Abdala have made this superb concert available for the world to listen to – particularly those unfortunate people who did not – or [in the case of many from the USA, probably] who could not attend the concert. Fortuitously, there are not one, but two ways to enjoy and – for some of us – to re-live that intoxicating experience. The full-video of the concert has been released on the video channel of Producciones Abdala [on YouTube]. Based on experience, it is more than likely that a spectacularly-produced DVD may also soon be available. [Fingers crossed]. Also, for the radio-friendly purposes and for audiences far and wide, there is also the CD, a version of the event where the track list has been somewhat shuffled to make the presentation more amenable to the air-waves, one assumes. Both are excellent productions.
The fidelity of the sound is best experienced during the hypnotic incantation to the memory of Juan Formell by inimitable Brenda Navarrete, especially when she plays the bàtá. The spiritual song take us to the rarefied realm from where that spirit of Mr Formell must surely have been smiling in appreciation throughout the event, especially – I would venture – as it comes soon after the special treat – “Chan Chan” with the great Barbarito Torres playing the laud with characteristic virtuosity – rendered not as Compay Segundo [and the Buena Vista Social Club] would have sung it, although it did appear to begin with the familiar strains, but was soon taken over by the glorious timba style perfected by Los Van Van.
However, in my opinion, a very important element is missing on this CD recording, and that is the unfettered appreciation of the audience at the live performance. The participation of the packed auditorium often singing along with their favourite Los Van Van songs, the whoops and shouts egging the musicians on and the wild applause at the end of the songs, which was the best recognition of the majesty of that evening. The crowd acted as if Juan Formell had come to life. Indeed he seemed to do so; the music and the musicians performing it made sure of that. But I understand the limitations of the audio only format. This memory of that viscerally exciting evening will I hope be restored if [and when] a DVD* of the concert follows this CD release. There is, indeed a lot more to see of that memorable night in January, 2020.
Dayramir González Vicet is to be roundly praised for his superb arrangements [most of which have been written by Mr Formell]. The orchestrations are nothing short of brilliant. They stand as a truly memorable tribute to one of the most iconic composers and bandleaders ever to come out of Cuba. Much of Mr Formell’s work was deeply inspired by the long and celebrated Afro-Cuban tradition. However, applying his revolutionary mindset to those traditions, Mr Formell was unafraid to write melodically and tonally in thoughtful, well-wrought works. While preserving the majesty of those works, Dayramir González Vicet has exalted them with his wondrously exuberant, vernally fresh re-imaginings, and the performances by these musicians are a testament that they are fully attuned to Mr Formell’s vision as well as to the vision and artistry of the young music director on that night – pianist Dayramir González Vicet.
None of this would have been even remotely as unforgettable had it not been for the inspired choice of participants. The result was that we are treated to performances – both solo and in ensemble – of the highest order, revealing craftsman of considerable gifts and imagination. The vocalists shine brightly from end to end. The tautness of the programme and the performances by each one of the invitees is superbly maintained throughout. This is why it is impossible to single any one guest vocalist from the constellation of stars [listed below] who graced the evening. Moreover, the production was well-rehearsed musicians. This was clear from the manner in which the lyrically flamboyant dance ensemble accompanying the pianist and the vocalists wove their vibrant, energetic performances into those by the string ensemble, Camerata Romeu exquisitely conducted by Zenaida Castro.
This blissfully unhackneyed and brilliantly executed recital by all concerned takes the memory in all its facets of the music of Juan Formell and Los Van Van. In the sheer panache and splendour of the arrangements and the presentation of it, this performance will be unmatched for a long time to come. Bravo Juan Formell & Los Van Van. Bravo Samuel Formell who graced the evening, bravo Dayramir González Vicet, all the performers, and Neris González Bello for curating the event.
Track list – 1: Tu decisión cuál es; 2: Mis Dudas; 3: Este amor que se muere; 4: Anda ven y muévete; 5: Todo se acabó; 6: La Bobería; 7: Si no te quieres tú; 8: Marilú; 9: El Guararey de Pastora; 10: Chan Chan; 11: Orún a Formell
Personnel – Dayramir González Vicet: Yamaha Avant Grand n3x piano [1 – 10]; Marlon Randy Águila Hechevarría: electric bass [1 – 10]; Reyner Ponce Duarte: drums 1 – 4, 6 – 10]; Mauricio Gutiérrez Upman: congas [1 – 10]; Jorge Coayo Molina: timbales [1 – 10]; Edgar Martinez: bongo and campana [1 – 10]; Boris Castellanos Lemes: guiro and maracas [1 – 10]; Dayron Ortiz Jiménez: electric guitar [1 – 4, 6 – 10]; Dayron Ortega Guzmán: acoustic guitar [5, 10]; Django Raúl Vives Vicet: trumpet [1 – 4, 6 – 10]; Jesus Ricardo Anduz Scoane: trumpet [1 – 4, 6 – 10]; Yoandy Argudin: trombone [1 – 4, 6 – 10]; Janio Abreu Morcate: alto saxophone [1 – 4, 6 – 10], flute  and clarinet ; Michel Herrera: tenor saxophone [1 – 4, 6 – 10]; Josue Yasmany Borges Maresma: flute [1 – 01]. Chorus – Gretchen González Muñoz, Sergio Antonio Siere Ochoa, Luisa Santiago and Akira Colarte [1 – 10]. Special Guests – Bárbaro Alberto “Barbarito” Torres: laud [5, 10]; Zenaida Castro y la Camerata Romeu [1 – 8, 10]; Ramon Justo Pelladito y su Grupo . Special Invited Vocalists – Alain Pérez , Luna Manzaneras ; David Blanco ; Teresa Yanet Pérez Senra ; Armando Cantero “Mandy” Abreu ; Arlenys Rodriguez Lazo and Mario Enrique “Mayito” Rivera Godínez ; Telmary Díaz Fernández and Mario Enrique “Mayito” Rivera Godínez ; Haila Maria Mompie and Armando Cantero “Mandy” Abreu ; Abdel Rasalps “Lele” Sotolongo ; Brenda Navarrete: bàtá and chant 
Released – 2021
Label – Unicornio Producciones Abdala
Runtime – 1:02:30