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Monday, February 23, 2009

Bigger is Better @ Jazz in the Gardens

Not that we’re carrying a brief for the folks at the National Housing Trust (there was, after all, that statue, but that’s another debate), but they’ve made some fairly astute and beneficial choices in the way of culture.

One such was Emancipation Park, which revitalized the former ‘dust bowl inking the two major midtown thoroughfares (Oxford Road and Knutsford Boulevard). The other was commissioning composer-arranger-musician Peter Ashbourne to put together a large ensemble to play a Christmas concert in the aforementioned Emancipation Park, shortened, for practical purposes, to E-Park.

The band thus dubbed the E-Park Band, has proved itself to be nothing short of an absolute musical gift to the Jmaaican people (and other nationalities who may hear it), and Ashbourne & Co again vindicated themselves at Sunday evening’s Jazz in the Gardens, the first in the bi-monthly live series for 2009, at its familiar home in the Gardens of the Pegasus, a stone’s throw from the Park of the Band’s its conception.

That the programme was essentially a reprise of that performed in the Second City during the Jamaica Jazz & Blues Festival last month made it in no way less enjoyable. The high level of musicianship and –more importantly – the sheer joy amongst the 13-member ensemble and the instant rapport with the audience fuelled a great hopefulness for a return to the days when such bands were commonplace. This in spite of Ashbourne’s typically deadpan admission that “this is not an economic proposition; it’s a labour of love.”

the loving laboured and romped (yes, we’ll use that word) through a varied repertoire encompassing pop, reggae, the Great American Songbook, and a “dancehall instrumental piece, incorporating the sampled voice of a lady begging on the street among other things.

They were preceded by a group of which one hopes the market will also make room for, and which might be thought of as their successors, even at this relatively early stage. The Edna Manley Ensemble, comprising recent graduates –and one teacher – at the former Cultural Training Centre offered a similarly diverse repertoire delivered with no small measure of verve.

They started with a competent, if somewhat tentative “Autumn Leaves”. Violin soloist Rafiq Williams was hampered by indifferent sound levels (thankfully, the overall sound was much improved from previous Jazz in the gardens outings), with only bassist Alves Dean showing any noticeable assurance on his instrument.

The addition of two sparkling female vocalists changed that for the better. First Some Thomas who did a creditable job covering “Love Me Forever” by the late great Cynthia Schloss before taking things up a notch with vintage Jimmy Cliff – “The Lion Say.” Immediately following her, Abby Gaye Dallas confirmed that her fine showing at the Jamaica Jazz and Blues Talent Stage was no fluke, putting her sultry vocals – and a neatly restrained sensuality – to good effect on “St Louis Blues” and “Night In Tunisia” (the latter employing lyrics improvised by Chaka Khan to fit the Dizzy Gillespie original). Courtney Fadlin, no stranger to the Pegasus faithful blew sweet and mellow on the smooth jazz classic, Grover Washington’s “Just The Two Of Us”

In an era when even established players are being made subservient to technology and even the art of selecting records for play has been steadily dehumanized, the sight - and sound - of a six-man horn section, complemented by guitar, bass, drums and two keyboards is truly a refreshing change, not to mention the truly exemplary vocal stylings of Karen Smith, Michael Sean Harris and the aforementioned EMC grads.

Sunday’s jazz in the Gardens offered, amid economic downturn and potential political upheaval, a genuine sign of hope. Let’s see where it leads.

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