Curacao North Sea Jazz Festival: Sept. 2-3, 2011

Curacao North Sea Jazz Festival: Sept. 2-3, 2011
R.J. DeLuke By

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Curacao North Sea Jazz Festival
World Trade Center
Sept. 2-3, 2011

The island of Curacao, in the Caribbean Sea, is an exotic place of sun and fun, and maybe the last place to expect a jazz festival. Then again, why not? Jazz music is all over the world, and festivals are global. So now there's one on this part of the globe, part of what was once The Netherlands Antilles, just about 38 miles north of the continent of South America.

Curacao North Seas Jazz festival, in fact, gets its name from The Netherlands, where the North Sea Jazz Festival is held annually. The festival was brought to Curacao and is run by the same people. (A branding thing, much like George Wein first called his spinoff festival in Saratoga Springs, NY, "Newport Jazz at Saratoga," before corporate sponsors captured the naming rights).

The 2011 version was only the second in Curacao, but it appears to be growing fast in popularity. According to the organizers, 11,000 tickets were printed and sold out for each of the two nights. It is, so far, however, a jazz festival not dominated by jazz. The headliners were Sting and Stevie Wonder, who both put on long , strong and stellar performances. Other music roamed from funk (Earth, Wind & Fire) and pop (Dionne Warwick), to Latin styles more identifiable with the island like salsa or meringue (Rubén Blades, Levi Silvanie and Juan Luis Guerra). Curacao residents are Dutch, which is also the official language, but there is equally a strong Latino influence due to its location, and their native tongue, Papiamentu, has all kinds of influences, but primarily Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish.

Even the jazz had a Latin flavor for the most part and wonderfully so. Pianist Chucho Valdes and his Afro-Cuban Messengers are always a treat, as is percussionist Poncho Sanchez and his Latin Jazz Band, which featured the superb Terence Blanchard as a guest trumpeter. Pianist Danilo Perez played a variety of things, but the influence from his heritage was unmistakable. Ronchi Matthew, a jazz pianist from Puerto Rico, also had the Latin flavor, though he had the tough job of playing at the same time that Wonder was killing with a two-wnd-a-half-hour show. Branford Marsalis, however, brought his quartet and lit up the night with scorching mainstream jazz.

The festival has three stages, and the audience can roam freely to check out whatever they choose, the same as the North Sea festival in Rotterdam. It's well-organized, and taking in this event on this glorious island can offer a dream-like experience: fantastic beaches; the inviting waters of the sea; fine food; plenty of activities by day; and fine music in a great setting by night.

The headliners on successive nights were rock star Sting, who has a fondness for jazz and is influenced by it, and Wonder, of whom the same could be said. Both shined.

Sting didn't touch the realm of jazz, but he did bring along drummer Vinnie Colaiuta and keyboardist David Sancious. The ever-versatile Colaiuta has done major rock gigs, but has also toured with Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock, and always plays what's right— grooving incessantly. Sting opened with "Message in a Bottle" and played a succession of tunes the audience knew and often sang along with. On the funky and reggae-ish "Englishman in New York," out came Marsalis from the wings, coloring the melody with soprano sax. Marsalis was, of course, part of Sting's heavily jazz-influenced The Dream of the Blue Turtles (A&M, 1985), featuring a touring group that also included bassist Darryl Jones, drummer Omar Hakim and keyboardist Kenny Kirkland.

Sting's voice was ever-soulful and in good form—strong and assured, and properly suited to ballads like "Fields of Gold." His melodies were interesting, both as vehicles for his lyrics and for the soloists—far distanced from so much of droning two-chord rock, which is why he's a lasting star and not a flash-in-the-pan. Marsalis played on a handful of songs, but it was Sting and his infectious grooves and gratifying melodies that carried the night.

The Police material, including "Wrapped Around Your Finger" and "Roxanne," was mixed with gems from Sting's solo career, like "Desert Rose" and "If You Love Someone Set Them Free, " both featuring some hot tenor sax from Marsalis.

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