From September 14 to 23, the transformative sounds of jazz filled the air in Quito at the 18th edition of the Ecuador Jazz Festival. This year the festival featured an especially diverse lineup that celebrated historically popular forms of jazz while embracing innovation and international influences.
This was my second year attending the festival, most of which takes place at the famous and elegant Teatro Nacional Sucre in Quito and it is one of my favorite events ever.
I have been lucky enough to attend 3 iterations of the Monterey Jazz Festival in California and a variety of others over time at which one hears a pleasant blend of American (and some international) jazz genres like Bebop, Fusion, Cool jazz, Dixieland, and a bit of Blues thrown in.
By comparison, Ecuador’s festival is heavily weighted with Latin influences which is no surprise as most attendees are Latin and from Ecuador. And judging from the waves of emotion flowing from them, they have a profound appreciation for the music of their neighboring countries. Those influences range from ethereal mountain and jungle sounds to Puerto Rican rhythms, Brazilian folk music, and Colombian Hip Hop. I admit that some were hard for me to recognize as jazz although the majority certainly is consistent with the term. A powerful Latin emphasis as well as some of the wild extensions beyond what most Americans think of as jazz made this a very rich emotional and musical experience for me.
I will share some of what I found out about artists that performed along with my impressions from attending the last 3 days of the 2023 festival. You will get some tips about where to stay and eat if you attend the festival, how to orient yourself for sightseeing, and some updates about where to catch some excellent jazz right here in Cuenca.
A Free Gift
Stop! If you are about to click away because you dislike jazz, here is a free gift you will almost certainly enjoy because of the wide variety of music it includes. Listen to an excellent 2+ hour sampling of the festival’s music on Spotify by clicking here. So, here is your chance to experience some of the sounds of the festival while you read a bit about it.
A Celebration of Jazz Diversity
The 18th edition of the Ecuador Jazz Festival in 2023 featured the talents of 172 musicians from Ecuador, Puerto Rico, the United States, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, and France. The festival was hosted at the prestigious Nacional Sucre and Variedades Ernesto Albán theaters.
Ecuador Jazz 2023 featured both national and international talent. I planned to describe the music in a pithy phrase but the incredible variety makes it impossible to do that. Instead, I will provide details of some of the artists and their different styles.
The international roster was enriched by Brazilian singer and songwriter Liniker Barros, renowned for her work with Liniker e os Caramelows. In addition, the Afrobeat rhythms of Newen Afrobeat from Chile are performed, paying tribute to the musical legacy of the legendary Fela Kuti. From Colombia, the festival welcomed the explosive Afro Legends and the Bogotá quartet Bituin.
Ecuadorian Jazz Excellence
Ecuadorian jazz talents were featured throughout. The local group Pies en la Tierra celebrated two decades in the local scene and drummer Raúl Molina took the stage to present his debut album, ‘Matria,’ showcasing his remarkable skills.
Ecuadorian jazz was evidenced by the local groups including Daniela Almodarain Grupo, the soulful Rebecca Chubay Quartet, and the evocative sounds of The Pain, featuring Santiago Sandoval alongside Lyzbeth Badaraco.
The Bjarke Lund Trio played their fusion of Ecuadorian and Argentinean influences, while Jenny Villafuerte’s performance added a unique flavor to the festival. The Szymanski / Blanchard / Sebastia Hard Bop Project offered a vibrant take on the genre, and Andrei Astaiza’s Chonta Madre brought the spirit of the Andes to the stage. Gandhy Rubio Ensemble, Ali Lema, and the dynamic Forgotten Weapon, led by Nick Jost and Andrés Benavides also showcased depth in Ecuadorian jazz talent.
The Saxophone Takes Center Stage
The saxophone is a building block of jazz and festival-goers witnessed performances by some of the world’s most distinguished saxophonists, including Miguel Zenón from Puerto Rico, Immanuel Wilkins from the United States, Melissa Aldana from Chile, and the French virtuoso, Samy Thiébault.
Miguel Zenón: Traditional
Puerto Rican saxophonist and composer Miguel Zenón impressed the audience with his classical jazz saxophone mastery. He paid homage to jazz legends while infusing his compositions with innovative twists.
Immanuel Wilkins: Contemporary Brilliance
U.S., saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins played from his debut album of contemporary jazz, which was lauded as the best jazz production of 2020 by the New York Times, and pushed the boundaries of this type of music. His saxophone solos were technically impressive and deeply emotional, demonstrating how the art form evolves to capture new generations of listeners.
While the festival celebrated the major theme of tradition and innovation in jazz, it also showcased various jazz subgenres which added depth and diversity to the music. Here are some specific examples from the festival’s last 3 days.
Thursday night, September 21
Samy Thiébault: Jazz with World Music Influences
I especially enjoyed another saxophonist, Samy Thiébault of France who shared his latest work, “Awé!,” which skillfully integrated a very listenable form of modern jazz with world music influences.
Samy will perform the same Caribbean-influenced work complemented by the Cuenca Symphony Orchestra at the University of Cuenca at 8 p.m., Thursday, October 5. Details here. This show ought to be incredible.
Saturday, September 23 Morning/Afternoon
Free Concert at Itchimbia Park
I absolutely loved this free, outdoor concert of 4 groups attended by a lot of younger folks and set against a spectacular background of a residential hillside at the high altitude Itchimbia Culture Center in Parque Itchimbia. Besides being a perfect weather day, the mix of Latin musical ethnicities was overwhelmingly fun. Below are the two best acts that were performed.
Andrey Astaiza: Chonta Madre (Ecuador)
Chonta Madre, a brainchild of Andrey Astaiza, is an experimental soundscape merging marimba and horn in an improvisational setting, blending traditional rhythms, electronics, and live instrumentation. Astaiza, the group’s leader developed the sound with an inclusive and decolonial vision, drawing from his experience and artistic training in Guayaquil’s public education system. The group includes Ecuadorian musicians like Kevin Santos, Bernarda Ubidia, Carlos Iturralde, and Carlos Alban.
Five years ago in Cali, Afrolegends emerged as a musical project representing various regions of the Colombian Pacific, including Guapi, Chocó, and Buenaventura. They were full of energy and movement and were a total riot to watch perform and got absolutely everybody on their feet dancing. Their music mirrors the cultural richness of these areas, blending Jamaican dancehall with traditional Pacific instruments like marimbas, bombos, and guasás, giving birth to the Pacific Dancehall movement. With an urban and Afrofuturist aesthetic, they paid homage to their ancestors through the concept of “Sabrosura and resistance.” with the positivity and beauty of their people.
Liniker Barros: Brazilian Soul
I was totally blown away by Brazilian singer and songwriter Liniker Barros, along with her effervescent group, Liniker e os Caramelows, which brought a tidal wave of Brazilian soul to the festival. Her repertoire closed Saturday’s performances at Teatro Sucre and was based on her praised solo album “Índigo Borboleta Anil,” released in 2022. Her sultry, soulful voice reminded me of a mix of Stevie Wonder and Al Jarreau if they were to sing in Portuguese. Infectious, Brazilian rhythms and melodies brought the packed audience to its feet for the whole performance.
Festival Tickets, Accommodation and Dining Tips
After visiting Quito a number of times, I can suggest you stay in El Centro Historico, a safer and most touristy part of town. I am sure there are other neighborhoods that are safe though there are many that are not in Quito including La Mariscal which has become spoiled by drug dealers and thieves. Avoid this sector including Plaza Foch which sadly used to be a fun, hip place to hang out, eat, and stay.
El Centro Historico also has the advantage of being extremely well-lit, heavily patrolled day and night, and very close to the Jazz Festival headquarters, Teatro Sucre Nacional. El Centro also holds lots of other tourist opportunities.
Most festival tickets are available at between $25-$30. You can order them online in advance and pick your seat from the chart. Or you can visit the Teatro Sucre box office until well into the first performance of the evening and purchase a ticket in person. The big benefit for people over 65 is half-price tickets with your cedula dropping your Platea (ground floor) ticket price to $12.50. There is no way to get the tercera edad price online. So, my advice is to check the schedule on the Teatro Sucre Website, select your shows, and then buy tickets at the box office in advance. The last show on Saturday was almost sold out by the time I checked the website about an hour before the show so I paid $25 online to make sure I got a seat. It was worth it just to hear Liniker Barros.
Oh, as far as I have been able to tell after sitting all around the theater, there is not a bad seat in the house!
For two festivals, I have stayed at a charming, refurbished, patrimonial home about 3 blocks walk away from both the Teatro Sucre’s plaza and the Plaza Grande which contains the presidential palace. Located on Av Venezuela, Casa Hotel Las Plazas is owned and managed by a delightful and very hospitable family. Rooms are nicely furnished and clean, a typical Ecuadorian breakfast is included and the hotel has an old-fashioned Ecuadorian look and feel. I found a rate of about $70 on booking.com which is less than the hotel advertises on its own website. Whatsapp Luis at +593 96 258 1675 at the hotel to ask for pricing and availability and check the websites mentioned.
Around the Plaza Grande which is near the hotel, there are dozens of restaurants to choose from, almost all Ecuadorian ‘comida típica.’ The building opposite the presidential palace has 4 floors containing almost exclusively restaurants and they seem to be open quite late. I have eaten at some and they were all unremarkable but can work if you don’t have a better recommendation.
My recommendations for eating near the hotel are:
1) La Caponata, a vegetarian Italian restaurant I thought I would hate but really liked. I found a good, if a bit expensive, pizza and a delicious mushroom appetizer. Their pizza was served at the Teatro Sucre bar by the slice as part of a sponsorship arrangement.
2) En Dulce bakery is a block away on Olmedo and it’s an incredible panaderia, pasteleria, and breakfast place. It can get busy and a bit slow on the weekends but with a bit of assertiveness and patience, you will be rewarded. Don’t miss En Dulce.
3) The little bakery shop at the Corner of Venezuela and Manabi where you turn right on Manabi to get to Teatro Sucre. The empanadas and other goodies there have been a lifesaver for me on several occasions when I hadn’t planned a pre-concert meal. I often grab some of their flaky pollo empanadas with a dessert and drink and bring it to the theater. 3 empanadas for $2.50. You can’t beat it. Some of those empanadas stashed in my backpack also saved me at the outdoor concert Saturday where no other food was being served.
What To Do in Quito
Of course, Quito has a lot to enjoy beyond the jazz festival. And if you go up for a few days, you will have time to explore and enjoy the city. Like what you ask?
Quito has an amazing selection of all kinds of excellent restaurants. I have not visited many but here are a few I have really enjoyed.
Suvlaki, the Greek restaurant on Amazonas Ave., near the Hilton Hotel transports your taste buds straight to Greece! (They have other locations around town, too.) This isn’t Greek Diner food. It’s Greek cuisine. Service is friendly and quick. The food is consistently excellent based on my numerous visits over the years. Order the 3 carne souvlaki platter of grilled meats with fries, enough to feed 2. Their tzatziki sauce and hummus are killer and include small portions on the side with little wedges of pita bread. I also enjoy the tomato soup and honest-to-God Baklava. You can sit outside under the awning and watch the world go by or inside where it’s a little less noisy. Check out their menu https://linktr.ee/suvlakigriego. Another fun thing about this place is an abundance of other interesting restaurants up and down the same street and another one running parallel. Noted for future investigation!
Pekin Cantonese Restaurant offers some of the best Cantonese food I have ever. I prefer “spicier” Chinese like Hunan and Sezchwuan but Pekin serves top-drawer cuisine in a lovely dining room with excellent service. Their menu features 9 different appetizers, 6 different soups, and a seemingly endless number of recognizable main dishes. Take a look at it and I think you will join me in wishing they could deliver to Cuenca.
By the way, you may be surprised to learn that P.F. Chang’s has invaded Quito inside the big mall by Parque Carolina. The menu is quite similar to what you remember in the U.S. but somehow the prices are at least double. I craved the food so much I am ashamed to say I grudgingly paid them.
I will cover a range of site-seeing options in Part 2 of a Travelog series I started a few weeks ago so stay tuned. For starters, though, my best advice is to take the narrated Quito Hop on Hop off double-decker bus tour which I have enjoyed twice over the years. It is convenient, reasonably priced, and informative. Ask for the tercera edad discount and bring your cedula. You will see a lot of major sites, all described on their website. And you can linger at any of them and then catch the next bus in their queue.
Cuenca Jazz Scene
There are some fine places to catch jazz in Cuenca between annual festivals in Quito. Below are the most prominent.
This place was one of my first stops during my Cuenca scouting visit in 2017 when it was located in an Italian restaurant in El Centro. Since the pandemic, it relocated to a spot on Los Cedros just off Ordonez Lasso in “gringolandia” at the Jazz Society Cafe (menu at the link) We go there a lot to enjoy the music while dining with friends.
Led by Jim Gala and Debby Degamo, CSJ has made an impressive impact on the music scene in Cuenca. Eleven years ago, they created the place when there wasn’t much jazz here. Today, thanks to their dedication and passion, Cuenca has become a lively center for jazz music showcasing local and international musicians.
The intimate venue has hosted over a thousand live jazz events and serves excellent meals from the attached Mother and Son Family Kitchen shepherded by Debby and her son, Chef James. The kitchen also supports a busy food delivery business of Asian foods. Reservations for dinner and music are recommended and appreciated at Whatsapp +593963223377.
Jim is a renowned jazz pianist from New York who brought his talent, intellect (he’s also a physicist) and experience to Cuenca. His performances and mentorship have not only improved local music but have also inspired and helped educate young musicians. More about Jim at www.jimgala.com.
The Jazz Society Cafe is a favorite for jazz enthusiasts. It continues to host high-quality, live jazz performances, keeping the city’s jazz scene alive. You will learn to appreciate excellent Cuenca players like Andrés Clavijo on percussion, Martian Navarro on lead guitar, and Tomas Navarro on saxophone along with an impressive list of others.
Watch Facebook Events and the Yapatree calendar plus other expat media for regular announcements about upcoming musical performances. Debby is very good at keeping everybody well-informed about their calendar.
Sucrce Sale has 2 locations that offer jazz regularly and these performances are well represented on its Facebook timeline at the prior link. The El Centro location at Luis Cordero and Mariscal Lamar currently has it on Thursday evenings at 8:30 p.m. I have heard some excellent music there over the years. A lot of the players in Cuenca know each other personally and musically because they play with each other in many different combinations. So, when they get together at CSJ or Sucre Sale Cafe’, they usually sound pretty tight and well-rehearsed. Many of these folks play both places. Sucre Sale Estadio is a second location on Roberto Crespo Toral near Luis Moreno Mora entertains customers with different jazz duos on Sundays at 5 p.m. The entrees, appetizers, desserts, and coffee are good and both places tend to draw a younger crowd of Ecuadorians than CSJ.
La Guarida is at Mariscal Lamar and Luis Pauta and is helmed by Andres Zambrano who runs a true performance center with impressive film, mural, story-telling, and musical programs. He puts on a popular Jazz Brunch from 10 am – 1 pm on the last Saturday of each month. The most recent incarnation on September 30 featured the local Esteban Encalada Quartet with Esteban on guitar, Fred Abad on drums, Edgardo Neira on sax, and Cristian Tenorio on bass guitar. Reservations are also appreciated at La Guarida at Whatsapp +593 99 806 8071. You can ask there to be added to his Whatsapp Group for updates.
Congratulations and thank you for making it all the way through my long-winded screed. I fear I went a went a bit long the memories are recent and fresh. To recap, I covered the festival with its many musical influences, food, accommodation options, and a bit about Cuenca’s jazz venues. So, if you want to attend the festival you now have something of a blueprint to build on that you can be confident about.
Next year let’s organize a Cuenca contingent to fly up and enjoy the experience together!
Catch what’s happening year-round at Teatro Sucre here:
- Website: https://teatrosucre.com/
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/FundacionTeatroNacionalSucre
- Twitter: https://twitter.com/TeatroSucreQ
- Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/ nationaltheatersucre/