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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Jazz fest wrap '08

As promised (a day late, hopefully not a dollar short), here is my overall review of Air J jazz fest 08


Jazz and Blues 08


Another Air Jamaica Jazz & Blues festival has swept through the western capital of Mobay. But this one can hardly be classified as 'just another Jazz & Blues'.
Firstly, the numbers: final audience figures were not yet available at time of writing, but it's fair to say that this festival was the largest ever in terms of attendance. Moreover, all three nights, and not just the climactic Saturday attracted huge numbers.
The line-up was undoubtedly a huge factor in driving these numbers. One of the strongest presentations in recent festival history, the 2008 lineup held the promise of music for almost every ear – and delivered. The was the curiosity factor surrounding big names long absent from Jamaican shores, like Diana Ross (more on her anon) and Anita Baker, who had not been to the island since her early 'You Bring Me Joy' hitmaking days. Curiosity also, about how a previously unheralded 13-year-old girl with the name Yanofsky would fare with the notoriously demanding Jamaican audience.
But by the time Sunday morning (January 27) dawned, all such questions had been answered, and while each patron had his or her own take on who 'took' each of the nights, there's little doubt that a great many musical appetites had been satisfied.

Thursday: Anita was sweeter
“Just a bunch of ol' love songs” is how Michigan native Anita Baker characterized her repertoire to the crowd who thronged the Aqueduct venue on Thursday's opening night. She could hardly have undersold it more. For the vast majority of the audience came to hear exactly that, and demonstrated in no uncertain terms their familiarity with those 'old love songs' singing, without prompt, the entire first verse of Sweet Love. The lusty chorus moved Baker almost to tears onstage and sent her performance pretty much into overdrive. She danced, cooed and conversed her way into the hearts of the audience, who refused to allow her to leave. A return engagement in Kingston would certainly not be out of place.

Baker was indeed a tough act to follow for the night's closer, James 'JT' Taylor. But the man who formerly led Kool & the Gang through a string of r&b/pop hits remained undaunted. Aided by his band and a trio of buxom back-up singers, Taylor delivered all of the K&G favourites, including 'Misled' 'Celebrate' 'Reggae Dancin' and the hit ballad 'Cherish'. The latter featured the back-ups in wedding gowns for a 'mock nuptials'. It was the kind of show that could have stood on its own in just about nay other venue, and JT.
Jamaican talent certainly made its presence felt on the Jazz & Blues stage. AJ Brown delivered welcome serendaes from his new CD, Sounds of Love as well as longtime favourites (All Fall Down, Love People) and a more talkative Jessica Yap opened up on violin, doing justice to Bob Marley and disco one-hit queen Gloria Gaynor (I Will Survive). Duane Stephenson gave a soulful, heartfelt stint that surely endeared him to many, while Marjorie Whylie led Jamaican jazz stalwarts Myrna Hague and others through an excursion of standards and contemporary tuens.
The night got a dose of caliente from New York City-based Latino funksters Yerba Buena, who made their Mobay debut this year, having been part of the 2007 lineup that was featured in Kingston. Their sure-fire brand of polyrhythms and 'Spanglish' sing-alongs got the audience fired up early. Fusion veterans Spyro Gyra marked 25 years last year, and showed they were none the worse for the wear, delivering a quality set of alternating tempos.

Friday: African Connection
One of the of the Jazz and Blues fest is the opportunity it offers for discovering new or previously unheralded acts of real substance. A Grammy nomination is undoubtedly a significant calling card, but Ryan Shaw had little else to recommend him to a Jamaican audience (an indictment of our local radio stations?) and the onus was on him to prove that he belonged on the big Jazz & Blues stage. His endearing “funk n' soul” hybrid (with just a wee bit of Southern country twang) ensured that the next time an MC says 'This Is Ryan Shaw” audiences will be primed and ready.
Roots reggae again took the spotlight on the second night in the forms of Etana and Chalice, the former overcoming some admitted nerves brought on by the occasion, the latter displaying a renewed commitment to the form, sounding more revved up than ever. The audience felt it and afforded them an encore which they graciously satisfied.

Revved up could also be used to describe horn legend Hugh Masakela. Almost equally famous for his gruff vocals (on the likes of Bring Back Nelson Mandela) as for his piercing yet fluid trumpet sound, Masakela and his South African All-Stars came onto the Rose Hall stage, grabbed hold of the audience and refused to let go until the final number. He thanked the Jamaican people collectively for their solidarity with Black S Africans during the worst years of the anti-apartheid struggle and introduced two vocalists, one male, one female who each displayed significant tremendous prowess. The lady in particular thrilled the audience by effortlessly taking her voice through several pitch levels while remaining in tune with the rest of the band.
The great artists develop a reputation for 'leaving it all on the stage'. From the moment she entered with the title track form her latest disc, The Real Thing, Jill Scott personified the kind of earthy yet thoughtful sensuality that has earned her accolades and fans around the world. 'Jilly from Philly' wove several spoken interludes into her musical narrative, sharing with the audience tidbits from her current personal and career situation. But it was the songs that the people came to hear, and they alternatively oozed and tumbled free from her voluptuous frame. Again, a return engagement would certainly be welcome.
Lou Gramm, who as former front man of the group Foreigner scored such hits as Urgent and I Want To Know What Love Is, unfortunately became the festival's only tragedy, as a reported acute bout of laryngitis sidelined him from his scheduled performance. We wish Lou a speedy and full recovery and anticipate a make-good from himself and his band.

Saturday: An 'Ocean' of Love
One artiste who may never have the opportunity of a make-good is Saturday night headliner Diana Ross. By insisting that the onsite monitors be turned off during her performance, in order to prohibit the broadcast of her image, and further reducing the visible stage area by piling speakers at the very front of the stage on either side Mizz Ross ended up angering many of the folks who came anticipating a performance worthy of her diva classification. This did not materialize, and the mood of the audience cascaded.
Fortunately, Ross was followed by Billy Ocean, who aptly demonstrated the proverbial line from one of his biggest hits 'When The Going Gets Tough, The Tough Get Going'. Proving he was more than tough enough for the Jazz & Blues faithful, the Trinidad & Tobago native opened with (One Of Them Nights before proceeding to kill them softly with fondly remembered ballads like 'Suddenly' 'Colour of Love' and his cover of Paul McCartney's 'Long & Winding Road'. Of course, he couldn't leave Jamaica without dropping “Caribbean Queen”
Earlier, a couple of rising stars, one Jamaican, the other foreign, stamped their respective class on the event. Christopher Martin continued to come into his own on his main stage debut, while 13-not-yet-14 year old Canadian Nikki Yanofsky, with Mom and Dad cheering from the audience, wore her Ella Fitzgerald influence very well, scatting and cooing like a seasoned pro. (which, having been singing publicly since age 4, she arguably is).
At 79, no one can argue that Koko Taylor isn't a seasoned pro, but the 'Queen of the Blues' refreshingly made herself the handmaid of the audience, showing that she still had a few moves left as she wiggled to blues classics like 'Ernestine' 'Let The Good Times Roll' 'Jump For Joy' and 'Wang Dang Doodle.'
Mary Mary came to spread the gospel message but made sure to leaven with a healthy dose of funk and r&b, aided by their winning stage presence and genuine interactions with the audience. No one was left unmoved, regardless of their religious persuasion.
The showcase stage, while not approaching the consistently high-level performances of previous years, still offered solid interludes to the main stage action, with the likes of pianist Kamla, vocalists Katrina and Stephanie and rap reggae chanters Wraps n' Kush among the standouts.
It may be deemed inappropriate by some of an event like this to attempt to be all things to all persons. But its clear that the organizers have sought within the ambit of a certain formula, to provide a showcase that succeeds on several levels musically, and to give both the casual 'lymer' and the serious music lover a fair shake.

Needed: a return of the pre-event shows, such as obtained in 2007, and a wider geographical spread of concerts to give fans in other locales the opportunity (perhaps a Jazz Roadshow in the weeks leading up to the main event, featuring the upcoming acts).

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