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Jazz with a special flavor. French, Latin, Japanese sounds liven N.Y. artsfest

Since it was part of the International Festival of the Arts this year, New York's JVC Jazz Festival took on a special flavor. Along with the usual appearances of artists like Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Wynton Marsalis, and Mel Torm'e, there was an entire evening of French jazz, a night of Latin music at Carnegie Hall, and a battle of the bands that included the Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra. Akiyoshi might well be called a pioneer in ethnic crossover music. In the 15 years since the formation of her band, she has written a series of jazz compositions, several of which reflect the moods of Japanese culture. At this jazz concert she was pitted against the Mel Lewis Orchestra, and, although the two bands didn't appear on stage together to wrestle it out, Akiyoshi's band won hands down.

Among Akiyoshi's most impressive offerings was ``Tales of a Courtesan,'' which Akiyoshi introduced by explaining the irony of the lives of Japanese courtesans of the Edo era - an odd mixture of abject slavery and cultural accomplishment. Both Akiyoshi's music and the exquisitely beautiful flute of her husband, Lew Tabackin, reflected the yearning, frivolity, sadness, drama, and passion of the courtesans' lot.

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The Mel Lewis offering, on the other hand, had a bland, showy Las Vegas sound - strictly talk-show music, despite the accomplished musicians in the ranks. Since Lewis parted company with the late trumpeter/arranger Thad Jones in 1975, the band has lost much of its spark.

The evening of jazz from France was a reminder of just how different European jazz musicians are from American. The classical influence is powerful; the music doesn't swing as hard as American jazz usually does; and there is a strong tie to the avant-garde jazz of the '60s in America.

Drummer Daniel Humair's trio, which featured German pianist Joachim Kuhn, was a hard-driving unit with carefully arranged sections interspersed with diffuse improvisations. Kuhn's approach ranged from thunderous fist-pounding to flowery ballads. Humair displayed a sense of humor later on in the program when he traded his drumsticks for plastic kiddy-squeaky hammers and ray guns on one of his solos.

Didier Lockwood has been heralded as one of the finest modern jazz violinists, and indeed he is. Nevertheless, his portion of the program was strange, never really settling in. Despite the talents of bassist Hel`ene Labarri`ere and guitarist Marc Ducret, and the low-key prettiness of the music, nothing seemed to jell. It was as though the musicians were listening only to themselves.

France's elder statesman of the jazz piano, Martial Solal, played an impressionistic medley of standards, including ``Here's That Rainy Day,'' ``Autumn in New York,'' ``All the Things You Are,'' and ``A Night in Tunisia.'' He dissected the songs cleverly, but his performance was glib and offhand, technically perfect, but rather cold and detached.

Classically trained clarinetist Michel Portal presented an essentially non-swinging set on bass clarinet and saxophone, which nonetheless included some interesting arrangements.

The Latin Jazz Jam - a tribute to Machito, who popularized jazz and Latin music in the late '40s and '50s - provided a wonderful evening. It almost wasn't, though, through no fault of the excellent musicians who took part. The problem was the over-miked sound system, which sabotaged any sense of definition in the music, as well as the formal atmosphere of Carnegie Hall. With a lineup like Tito Puente, Celia Cruz, Mongo Santamaria, and reedmen Paquito D'Rivera and Dave Valentin, it should have been a no-lose situation.

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Despite the sound problems, there were some great moments all around, notably Santamaria's liquid congas and the introduction of a talented young Brazilian singer/guitarist, Ana Karam, who played a smashing guitar/clarinet duet with D'Rivera.

Tito Puente's orchestra was in solid form, as always. Although much of the evening was taken up with jazz/Latin crossover music (after all, this was a jazz festival), the audience responded most strongly to the more traditional numbers, and to veteran Cuban singer Celia Cruz, who unquestionably stole the show.

Miss Cruz, who has been singing for more than 40 years, is a flashy, vigorous performer, an impressive improviser with a strong voice (she is famous in her native Cuba for singing in front of audiences of several thousand without using a microphone). Before the night was over, she had the entire audience, Spanish- and non-Spanish-speaking, singing along with her.

Amy Duncan covers popular music for the Monitor.

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