Saturday, January 23, 2010

Barbados Jazz Festival 2010 (The Great Bajan Jam)

During my early journeys to the Caribbean I brought along a copy of James A. Michener’s ‘Caribbean’ – a truly magnificent novel. Caribbean transported me through 700 years of revolution, revolt and spellbinding history. In graphic detail Michener describes the judicial ways of the Arawak Indians and violent conquests of the Caribs. It’s believed an Amerindian civilization predated the arrival of the Arawaks dating back to 1600 B.C. – weaving a long migrating thread between the regions islands and indigenous settlements.
The Arawaks grew cotton, cassava, corn, peanuts, guavas and papaya on the island of Barbados. Barbados earned its title from the long, hanging root of the bearded fig tree and to some extent the bearded Caribs who migrated by canoe from the Orinoco River region of Venezuela. It was the Portuguese who passed through Barbados en route to Brazil who named the island Los Barbados (bearded-ones.)

Michener’s accounts of trials, discomfort, discovery and redemption throughout the region plays the soul like a vibrating string attached to sliding tuning peg. At times the tension is so unyielding I’d pause and catch a view of the perfectly cut horizon beyond the airplane window. The words concealed images of the first settlers – the invading Caribs with their thirst for blood and human flesh who all but extinguished the Arawaks by 1200. Their own termination most likely from disease, famine and the slave trade inflicted by the Spanish and Portuguese was inevitable. The real Pirates of the Caribbean would surface in these waters a few hundred years later.

The evoltion of technology has changed the way we travel. The books that inspired so much intrique and serene moments during the long flight are challenged by options - many options. You can watch a combination of television shows or first run movies from the back of a neighboring chair. In some ways it reduces the flight to a series of visual episodes. I can’t say where or when I would have discovered the brilliant Argentine film ‘Tetro’ if not for the many choices offered by Air Canada - yet in some way I miss page turners like Rohan Mistry’s ‘ A Fine Balance” which accompanied me a decade ago.

Jazz away from the mainland has a distinct appeal free from the expected and commonplace. Hearing the word Caribbean summons a world out of reach to many - yet there for imagination. Winter drives the mind to places never visited but often desired - to places remembered – always longed for. This pretty well sums up the fascination with the emerald green waters that brush the shoreline of the ‘bearded one’ – Barbados.

It’s about that first baptismal swim after check-in. Migrating clouds shadow every move and by late afternoon the sun cuts into the horizon dividing what day time is left between land and sea. The skyline transforms from intense blue to several shades of orange before fading black. This is your moment in a distant locale mostly imagined and foreign to everyday routine. It’s that break from commitment and vicinal demands all travelers so desire. Jazz is a reasonable excuse to jet away to repair and rejuvenate the human spirit.

Barbados Jazz 2010 can claim the luck of the draw. January 11-17 must have carried some kind of zodiac charm that inspired the prevailing winds intercede and cart whatever risk of torrential rains be scattered elsewhere. This was a first. At times during the week’s festivities one could always count on a heavy blast of tropical weather. Generally, the surreptitious visits would last for days leaving the concert grounds an uncomprimising mess.

Trinidadian trumpeter Etienne Charles opened the17th annual Barbados Jazz Festival at the Sunbury Plantation House - built over three hundred years ago around 1660 by Irish/Englishman Matthew Chapman - one of the first settlers and a planter – located in the parish of St. Phiiip on land owned by Quakers.

Charles and his explosive unit featuring pianist Kris Bowers, drummer Joe Saylor and bassist Ben Williams immersed the audience in folkloric rememberance – the music – family ties – atmosphere connected to his youth in Trinidad. Julliard trained Charles has taken a chapter from the Wynton Marsalis script placing narration at the forefront of musical exposition. Charles is stylistically entrenched in the langauge of youth – that is - a swirling mix of world rhythms – staggered bass lines and free flowing improvisation. Cubans have given this movement idenity. It all begins behind the drum kit with the rhythmnic crack of drum sticks against the rim and side panels of the drums – then a collision between all regions of the set. This initiates a dynamic that underlines as wells as guides the soloist.

Much of the evening was given to music drawn from Charles latest – Folklore, recorded in Brooklyn, New York.

Keeping the interest and exploration of folk tradition in the main arena - saxophonist Joe Lovano performed compositions culled from his latest – Folk Art.

Lovano emerged from backstage in full improvisational mode. The horn bellowed and stammered making short emphatic statements before the rhythm section exerted a sizeable lift. Lovano colorfully integrated vocalist Judi Silvano into the mix. Silvano’s free form singing at times outlined the melody at others danced a singular dance in collusion with the band. The short motifs induced a hypnotic feel seemingly linked to ancestural chants inherent to North America.

This was the jazz quotient for the festival. Monday’s are usually reserved for mainstream performers. Terence Blanchard, Roy Hargrove, Robert Glasper have all shared the Sunbury stage at one time or another.

Day two was awarded to Bajan performers. This has become a tradition over the years at the Heritage Park and Rum Factory which also comes with a mini- amphitheatre. Singer/guitarist Shane Forrester opened with a pleasant set based around a few homespun originals and cover songs. Forrester sings in a mid-range falsetto a region in the voice that takes a few listens to adjust to. It’s his crisp to the point guitar playing that impresses.

Throughout the set it was those moments Forrester took command of the string instrument that showed him to be a superior player with something universal to offer. It brought to mind South African guitarist Jimmy Dludlu. Forrester was at his best on Prince’s ‘Purple Rain’, Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror’ and his own single ‘Love When You Call My Name’ a song that should be a staple of contemporary radio.

The evening belonged to rhythm and blues singer Toni Norville - back after a long absense. Norville arrived as if shot from a canon. This was the night she wanted and territory she was determined to possess.

A great performer arrives with fire in the belly and sings with ungoverned passion. Norville had enough in her to light the entire Caribbean.

Norville prowled the stage right to left pausing to punctuate a lyrical imperative or fire a piercing note through the attentive crowd out into the night air. The effect was exhilarating. There were times it seemed Norville might hyperventilate from the mix of declaritory statements and volumes of inhaled oxygen needed to drive the message home. Just when it seemed Norville might slow the pace she invites gospel singer Paula Hinds on board the express train. The two took a soulful turn on Stevie Wonder’s “ Love’s in Need of Love Today. “ This was a BET Sunday morning moment with Hinds putting the finishing touches on the soul-stirring testimonial by scaling an octave above Norville to manage a long soulful phrase in territory reserved for the likes of Mariah Carey, Yolanda Adams, Aretha and a sacred few. The duet sent the normally reserved crowd to it’s feet. Norville certainly claimed her Redemption.

People were expecting soul icon Smokey Robinson to be the life of the party and he didn’t disappoint. This was the big jazz ticket – the night to sport your finest dress or finely tuned suit. That would account in part for the seemingly terminal slow start to the show.

A fifty minute delay in other arenas would cause near riots but in Barbados it’s a given. There were moments of clapping and knee slapping but no one took it serious. By the time Robinson arrived the delay was a forgotten distraction.

Robinson turns seventy next month and there were questions whether the entertainer still had the splendid pipes and stamina to carry a grueling one man show. Robinson made his entrance dancing to Going to a Go-Go, a signature track from one of his 1960s recordings followed by Second that Emotion. Robinson engaged the crowd with bits of humor and storytelling before setting up a string memorable classics. He then ran through a list of hits – Shop Around, Ooh Baby Baby, Being With You, I’ll Try Something New before focusing on his new disc Time Flies.
Robinson then went on to recollect hits personally scripted for other artists – My Girl for the Temptations, Tears of a Clown for the Miracles. The show built to a climax with a slowed down version of Tracks of My Tears. It was here the falsetto began to waver. Robinson regained momentum with a crowd pleasing sing-along on his 1979 hit Cruisin’. He then divided the audience into two choirs. Every riff he threw forward the audience returned fully remembered and spot on pitch wise. This is an audience that spends a greater part of the week in church singing the praises. This crowd could have gone on the road with the icon.

The only downside to the entertaining affair was the way to young dancers who flitted about the stage as if at a hip hop extravaganza and Smokey’s close ups with his young female background singers. Those were borderline moments when Robinson would have benefited by having one of the female rhythm and blues greats from his era alongside to temper the fever.

A night at The Crane is another setting that gives the jazz festival an edge over most other events. The lavish setting has an appeal of its own. It’s a dressy affair complete with five star dining and luxury trappings. This night was programmed as a jazz take on classic Cuban music. The band fronted by rising star – pianist Elio Villafrana with Canadian wind specialist Jane Bunnett on hand played to the delicate side of the popular music.

Friday night’s showcase was held on the prime minister’s grounds at Llaro Court. Along with the sumptuous surroundings came tighter security - nothing in the realm of boarding an airplane to the USA.

The night centered round hip hop artist Lalah Hathaway daughter of revered music pioneer Don Hathaway.

Hathaway’s set was a laid back operation with few highs and no lows. The whole unit looked out of place in outfits more suitable to moving furniture than playing before a crowd of finely honed dignitaries. Hathaway seemed content to let the evening pass without trying to engage the audience. It was the last musical interlude of the evening that offered a glimpse of the potential as Hathaway began scatting and singing as she deserved membership in the Ella, Sarah, Billie fraternity.
Bwakore emerged as one of the highlights of the festival leading the day Saturday at Farley Hill National Park. The band from the island Martinique played music that kept their cultural identity intact as they blended the improvisational spirit of jazz and textural trimmings of world music with indigenous marzuka, Creole waltz and salsa beats.

The ensemble consists of Claude Cesaire, Alvin Lowenski, Jose Marie-Rose, Max and Telephus Zebina Jose. The spoken language is rooted in the Creole vernacular. Throughout the ninety minute set Bwakore never felt the compulsion to indulge the crowd with sing a longs or silly banter – just straightforward exceptional music rooted in French/World music culture.
What a treat seeing this many known accomplished players in one band. Who said fusion was a dinosaur decimated from the bruising strokes of the now extinct smooth jazz invasion?
Lao and Tizer and company would beg to argue with that assessment.

Tizer is the brainchild of gifted keyboardist Lao Tizer. The band functions on high octane playing with long improvisational passages and intricately crafted motifs and counterpoint. With guitarist Chieli Minucci and violinist Karen Briggs nearby Tizer acted as central command nodding and directing from the keyboard pillar. For excitement, there were plenty moments of intersecting ideas especially when Briggs made her entries. Briggs has a natural way of elevating a song by just selecting the right sequence of notes for the moment then letting go. She also has a quiet stage presence that gives the ensemble a solid visual component.

Is there an audience for revisionist music as such? Obviously! Tizer seems to have a schedule that works for him. Is there still demand for music rooted in the Return to Forever, Mahavishnu Orchestra tradition? May be!

Early in the day it seemed Farley Hill Park would witness less than expected attendance. But as time drew closer to the moment Robin Thicke was to take the main stage the park filled up. This was a shrewd gamble on festival producer Gilbert Rowe’s behalf. This is usually the time when an all star band of Cubans or heavy hitting brigade of dance oriented smooth jazzers get the nod.

Robin Thicke seems to be riding the crest of the rapidly declining pop industry whose sales have diminished substantially as a younger demographic chooses to steal music and toy with applications. Thicke made a big splash penning hits for Christina Aguilera, Mya Brandy, Marc Anthony and others. He won a Grammy in 2004 for Usher’s release Confessions and hits for himself in 2007 with ‘Lost Without U’ – then , ‘Magic’.

Jubilant patrons stood nearby clasping the barricades keeping fans a respectable distance. Most screamed during every shift of an amplifier or beam of colorful lighting as set up continued. Then the moment arrived! A heavy blast of dancehall rhythm – lights dim and Thicke leaps center stage. From that moment the youthful audience lived every word – recited every phrase and sang as if the often sexual lyrics were meant solely for a preferred few.

Thicke stays close to the script – past entries – Sexual Attention – Sexual Capacity now his latest – Sexual Therapy. The night rolled on wrapped around these specific themes with Thicke bouncing between piano and microphone stand. Thicke isn’t the smoothest or most sensual male singer/dancer but he bonds with his followers and never shies from addressing their fantasies.

Sunday at Farley Hill National Park began with local folk/rock unit Alex M. Alex has a distinct voice one that connects yet the music being presented at a jazz festival with few boundaries felt out of place. Bone crunching guitar chords and pounding rock rhythms are no match for good taste. This may work in an alternative rock situation but on a day when people were fixated on the Caribbean pulse with a bit of smooth jazz flavor this crossed the line. Nonetheless, Alex M is a super talent. He can sing and exudes ample stage appeal. Perhaps, the coming weeks and months focused on songwriting will bring tremendous growth.

Saxophonist ArturoTappin knows this audience. The native Bajan has played the festival many times the past seventeen years. Tappin also knows what to play and what not to play keeping the audience satisfied. He understands the jazz that pushes him to excel chasing the Coltrane, Brecker, or Parker legacy is not the one that will carry this crowd – especially after church services on Sunday. It’s dance and hit a groove time and please - no music for the head.
Tappin spends the year mostly away from the island as part of singer Roberta Flack’s touring band. He also finds time to churn out his own music and release sessions comprised of new originals from time to time.

On this day Tappin laid his elongated set out as a review featuring singers Toni Norville and Marisa Lindsay.

Lindsay – dressed in stylistic white dress surpassed her past efforts singing music more reflective of her background. It was the classic soul material that saw her reach for notes just beyond most singers range and hit them with authority.

Norville – still feeling the afterglow from her Tuesday night powerhouse exhibition sang with much the same energy but not with the same focus on pitch. There were passages in need of fine tuning.

The pairing of the two singers worked especially well as Tappin rolled the proceedings up with a heartfelt tribute –‘You Don’t Know Me Now’ to soul singer supreme Teddy Pendergrass who passed only days before.

Warren Hill has had an enviable career arriving just in time for the first Wave and then the Smooth Jazz revolution. It’s led to years of touring - numerous smooth jazz Caribbean cruises and a legion of fans.

Hill like so many other players who depended on the cross connect between smooth jazz stations that once was a road map across the USA is now concentrating on touring more than ever. The latest unit may be his best. It’s everything musical you could want from a pop jazz ensemble. Strong curious melodies – thundering rhythm and marvelous interludes. Hill is a seasoned performer who carries himself like a veteran on stage.

Even more desirable than a ticket for Smokey Robinson, which was from this eye half sold – Kenneth ‘Babyface” Edmonds was the artist most on people’s minds.Every act on Sunday had the feel of being mostly background music in anticipation of the one-time can’t miss hit maker.

Babyface earned his name as a member of Bootsy Collins band in the early days of his career as a sideman. Edmonds would quickly score writing credentials with hits for Bobby Brown, Karyn White and Paubla Abdul. It was the monster hit – ‘End of the Road’ recorded by Boyz 11 Men that earned him iconic status. Then came number one hits – “I’m Your Baby Tonight’ and “Exhale (Shoop Shoop) ‘ for Whitney Houston that would lead to three Grammy’s for producer of the year 1995-1997.

Where Saturday night’s crowd was packed with late teens and early twenties – Sunday’s crowd showed its age. Babyface is now in his fifties and so were many in attendance. These were songs people played getting to know one another as the love lights dimmed. You don’t forget those moments or tunes that enshrine those rare occasions.

“Why he still looks like Denzil Washington’ was the verbal assessment expressed in the seats surrounding me. Face is definitely a female attarction.

Babyface didn’t disappoint. The moves are there – the posing – the clean suit – the handsome manners and so was the not so polished singing. This is a writer with moderate vocal chops reaching for Whitney’s notes missing by a wide margin yet that’s not what people absorb. As the rains came – and it did pound the grounds – several couples found refuge under umbrellas - embraced and reveled in the slow grind. Eventually, the pitch black night sky surfaced as the heat of afternoon partnered with the rain to administer a round of Sexual Therapy.

Year seventeen now a pleasant memory and contemporary Barbados at hand I wish to acknowledge those that made this lovely excursion a welcome retreat from the cold winds that chase the body most days up north. Thanks to the many delightful friends at Barbados Tourism Authority – Ruth Phillips, Avril, Maggie, Diana, Stacy. Producer Gilbert Rowe – Jacqueline Wiltshire Gay and all of you who made this visit such a joy.

A special thanks to the Bougainvillea Beach Resorts who always make our stay an occasion to remember – our friends at the Mount Gay Distillery, the Fish Pot Restaurant, Zen , and the Waterfront CafĂ©.
Bill King