By Patricia Alisau

Master guitarrist Frank Gambale pulls strings to wow the crowd. Photo by Patricia AlisauForget the turkey and stuffing. The next time you want something special to rev up Thanksgiving, head to the Riviera Maya to feast on a Jazz Festival. And a tasty repast it promises to be with three nights of music under the stars on a moon-drenched beach beside the sea.  Did I also mention it’s free?

Always opening on Thanksgiving Day and stretching into the weekend, the host is Playa del Carmen, a charming coastal town gaining a reputation as the hottest vacation haven of the Mexican Caribbean. Attracting bigger and bigger crowds each year, the most recent Festival was the 11th in a row and drew an estimated 30,000 fans packed side-by-side on blankets, mats and even in pup tents. The largest fest of its kind in the country. the event marks the performance of some of the most respected Mexican and American jazz artists of today and there’s no doubt this was one of the reasons for the record turnout last Thanksgiving. Among the headliners, for example, was Earth, Wind & Fire, the Chicago jazz-soul band topping the charts in the 1970s and on tour around the world ever since. 

And they didn’t disappoint. When EWF took to the stage, the sudden rain (unusual for this time of year) pelting the crowd was cold but their rhythms were anything but as they belted out oldies such as “After the Love has Gone” and “In the Name of Love,” featuring the ever-flawless Phillip Bailey with his soprano falsetto. The tight musical synergy of the 14-member band synced into carefully choreographed dance moves and hip-swinging funk that was like the sugar coating of the evening.

But they were not the only group that brought the crowd to their feet hip-hopping barefoot in the sand. An interpreter of cumbia--music from Colombia with African/indigenous roots--Celso Pina rocked the Festival with his accordion, lending truth to his nickname, “Rebel of the Accordion.” Not content with pure cumbia, however, Pina cleverly fused it with norteno music from his native Monterrey, Mexico, which has a polka beat. It’s most likely what’s earned him several Latin Grammy award nominations.

Rebel of the Accordion, Celso Pina and his cumbia-norteno sounds. Photo by Patricia AlisauLocal talent was evident elsewhere as the show opened with Aguamala, a home-grown Mexican jazz group led by Fernando Toussaint, drummer and long-time musical director of the Festival.  Together with his brothers, they delivered some original numbers that ended with a surprise appearance by songstress sister, Cecilia Toussaint, an artistic legend in her own right. Traveling to Asia is on the group’s musical agenda for later this year.

It could have been a hard act to top but, next, Frank Gambale from New York wowed the crowd with his mastery of the guitar and was followed by the Clare Fischer Latin Jazz band where Brent Fischer turned out bossa nova and afro-Cuban mixes on his bass guitar. “Ritmo,” an album produced by Brent and his late father, Clare Fischer, won the 2013 Grammy Award for Best Latin Jazz Group.

Also among the acts were electric bass player, Jeff Berlin, who blended rock and blues with jazz, his signature fusions, and Dennis Chambers, a wizard with the drums, who started drumming at age 4. At the conclusion of the Festival, the enthusiastic Toussaint said his future dream team would also include icons such as Santana and Sting. And I’m sure he is working on it at this writing.

As for traditional Thanksgiving dinner, you can easily trade it in for Asian, Argentine, Mexican, Greek or Italian at any of the bistros and restaurants lining trendy Avenida 5, which foodie’s swear by.

For updates on the 2014 12th Annual Riviera Maya Jazz Festival, keep checking

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