It's always a joy arriving in Barbados, a place that has become infinitely familiar and whose people welcome us as family. Years past, the view from the side window of the airplane exposed terrain dried from uncompromising sunshine, at other times, as is the case at present, incessant rain. Fortunately, the opening concert at the Sunbury Plantation was spared interruption.
Local hero, pianist Adrian Clarke led with his crack band featuring saxophonist Andre Woodvine on tenor, Nicholas Brankcer bass plus steel pans and drums offering everyone a taste of mainstream jazz laced with island rhythms. The hour and half long set allowed everyone time to socialize and savour the local cuisine. The spectacular setting was immacuately decorated and lit for effect. Star attraction, Gato Barbieri proved to be more than a handful. From the moment of his arrival there was a sense the hot-bloodied Brazilian would implode.
Gato Barbieri began by scolding the soundmen then chastising the imported film crew for documenting his concert. He then began to play somewhere between lost and found. Within the structure of the song, the support band landed in differing zones causing Barbieri to stop and admonish sidemen. This went on a few times before Barbieri settled into the brash playing he's known for. At moments the set seemed eerily like a skit from Comedy Central. In the end the crowd reacted indifferent to his antics. Barbieri is unique in that he plays few notes and dynamics are mostly absent. Somehow he hits a universal chord with followers. Fortunately, the set ended without further mishap. "Europa", the expected encore never materialized. This was most welcomed.
The press conference following the concert was another affair one that will eventually make it into a collection of favourite road stories. Tuesday morning deep-blue pierced the overcast sky as temperatures rose to humid strength - great day to toil under the lush overgrowth and walk the streets of Bridgetown. Jazz broadcaster/musician Walle Larrson was up for a trip in a mini van along the coastline with yours truly. For those who have never experienced the tropical flavours and hospitality - this is a must. The sublime taste of a local banana is enough to overwhelm the senses.
Two days in a row the Barbados Jazz Festival was spared torrential downpours. The night air was ripe with the scent of sweet grass and mature sugar cane surrounding Heritage Park/The Rum Factory in St.Philip - the featured venue.
Local singers Janelle Headley and Tamara Marshall had the evening to themselves. Both seized the opportunity and gave crowds what they had been waiting for - first rate vocalese and classy entertainment. Headley, younger of the two, looked spectacular in her chosen attire - most appropriate for the high-end occasion. Headley's choice of material ranged from traditional standards to jazz songs - "Afro Blue" - to soft romantic rhythm and blues. Confidence was never a factor. The crowd was on her side throughout. There were moments of wavering pitch that eventually found steady ground when connecting with the solid backing unit.
Tamara Marshall entered the stage as a seasoned professional having spent most her life in front of audiences. In fact, Marshall made her debut at age four in The King & I at O'Keefe Centre in Toronto. Marshall slipped from one costume change to another with grace and poise, her singing worthy a spot on Broadway. Marshall has great range and aptitude. She knows when to seduce and when to coddle. This she did with ease. Pitch was never a factor - neither was pacing. Marshall needs only to be seen by an international audience to rate a worldwide profile. At present she makes a tidy living singing everything that presents itself on the island.
Day three, festival producer Gilbert Rowe made an astute calculation - don't defy the odds and move one of the main concerts scheduled for the splendid grounds of the Sherbourne Conference Centre featuring pianists Jason Moran and Ellis Marsalis indoors. The move paid big dividends. It was another long day of torrential downpours one many islanders wish would exit peacefully. No such doing. The land remained saturated and heavens above blind to the predicament. Moran and Marsalis were served well by the venue change.
Pianist Jason Moran and companions, Tarus Mateen bass and Nasheet Waits drums gave the full house something to cheer about. Focused on the now - Moran played material from his forthcoming live Blue Note release The Bandwagon - one which pays homage to the blues and street music of New Orleans. This was jazz with a contemporary bent. Moran plays somewhere between Monk and Jackie Byard just one of the composers present during night. The music is often jagged and dissonant. Time surges then stiffens - swings and dissipates. No motif endures beyond purpose. There is a perception Bajans cool to jazz outside the predictable pop realm. This was not the case. As someone said - "They got it!" And they did, roaring approval. Moran's music resides in the roots of jazz and blues as evident in a tribute to the late blues giant Albert King. It was the challenging conversation between band and audience culminating in a funky run through the hip hop classic Planet Jazz that sealed the performance.
Ellis Marsalis for his part played standards. Working in step where saxophonist Derek Douget and son Jason. The polite pace eventually accelerated when the unit attacked the standard "Softly As In A Morning Sunrise." This is where the ghost of John Coltrane hovered above. Marsalis's modal intentions sent Douget into an improvisational frenzy. With son Jason blasting beneath- the tune offered several moments of sheer delight and explosive invention. It was a composition by New Orleans's hero Alvin Baptiste that defined the evening. The second line rhythm and easy pace left a large expanse of combustible improvisation. Marsalis glided through the history of New Orleans's piano - from blues to boogie. Was that Alicia?
Day five, the much anticipated Alicia Keys performance was a dressy affair. Tickets sold for $120 a pop. Keys entered forty minutes after the sounding of the National Anthem. The moments in between seemed an eternity occasionally punctuated by the rhythmic clapping of an audience growing impatient. It was Wayne "Freaky Nasty" Mitchell from Key's entourage who broke the coma. Mitchell, decked out in rapper gear prowled the terrain as if a standoff between Eminem and Flavour Flav was inevitable. Keys band played on the money plying their best efforts in the opener "Karma", which owes greater allegiance to Destiny's Child than Keys. The dance steps rank familiar - much of what's been recycled courtesy Beyonce and crew. Keys invited everyone to sing along on "A Woman's Worth." You have to respect an audience that can lip-synch every syllable. Soon, Keys morphed into Ja Lo meets Gloria Estesfan with a Latin tinged stroll from stage right to left. The music was vibrant even if the choreography a shade predictable. Keys then bounced between keyboards leaving her background singers room to emote, Especially, during "How Come You Don't Call Me Anymore." As background singers the group was serviceable but as soloists - most forgettable. Before sixty minutes evaporated and without blinking, Keys thanked Barbados, sang the hit tune "Fallin'"- then disappeared into the bank of stage lights while the capacity crowd held their seats in disbelief. Background vocalist Jermaine Germaine began the awkward encore chant. Soon, the young performer showed for a excellent rendition of "You Don't Know My Name" before sliding away under the starlit night sky.
Keys doesn't merit the over the top enthusiasm reserved for the Patti Labelle's, Dionne Warwick's, Lou Rawl's - Roberta Flack's, who never short time the audience. Keys is a marvellous singer who has definitely earned her spot atop pop charts. The diva factor will either serve her well or remind folks of Mariah Carey. The wind no longer cries Mariah.
Friday night at Sir Garfield Sobers Complex is more than an evening out - it's weeks planning and styling for the major event. Barbados women are some of the most beautiful and fashionable on planet earth. Showtime is a shared experience! Saturday and Sunday at Farley Hill National Park is for many the most relaxing. This is where smooth jazz and Latin co-inhabit. The outdoor setting rising above the Scotland district spreads across rolling hills down to the Atlantic Ocean. The view is breathtaking. The heavily wooded surroundings are most suitable for picnicking, socializing - a bit of rum tasting and jazz with a ferocious backbeat.
Bassist Charles Flores and companions - percussionist Giovanni Hildalgo, drummer Hernacio Hernades, Jonathon Ball on tenor and Elio Villafranco piano played a sizzling set of mostly originals. The opener, "Nubian Jam" caught the unit in full steam with Ball flexing his improvisational skills. Long streams of considered patterns soared above into passing currents until vanquished in the deep green forest below. The Ball and Hidago pairing on "You Spoke Too Soon" gave the players free rein to challenge and goad one another. Hildago's solo spot was something to admire. The hands are powerful, accurate and blessed. Hildago could drain a memorable melody from a cheap slab of plywood. Flores is a sight to study. On Pat Martino's "El Hombre," interplay between pianist Villafranco and Flores was nothing shy of spectacular. Neither could contain the shotgun spread of ideas. Flores for his part possesses astonishing technique and forges solo passages with considerable strength and daring. Villafranco has absorbed the vast history of Latin jazz playing from Chick Corea to Gonzalo Rubalcaba. This was the most invigorating set of the afternoon. Puerto Rico's Tito de Garcia opened with saxophonist Manuel Pelayo, trumpeter Jose Quinones, trombonist Gamalier Gonzales - congos and bongos, Raul Rosario and Ramon Rodriquez and Garcia on drums. The band played a scorching take on the original "Songa Pa Ti", before easing their way in the final crowd pleaser - the salsa anthem - Cloudy Days.
Philadelphia's own Pieces of a Dream connected with the partygoers. This was music designed more for bump and grind that the think and drink. Three decades of touring, recording and show business hasn't diminished the band's enthusiasm. Sax man, Eddie Bacchus Jr. fired away bleeding every ounce of emotion from the biting alto. The sound and notes are all too familiar and at brain-stressing volume can shred the patience of the unsuspecting. "The Dream" left no showbiz antic unturned. Bacchus for his part did that circular breathing thing holding a note during "Club Jazz" until nearly passing out from the bends. Shedding his light summer wear, Bacchus revealed his favourite tattoos inked on less than muscular flesh. Thirty years touring does not keep the body ripe. If that wasn't fun enough then it was time for the extremely talented keyboardists - James Floyd and Gerard Gibbs do their funky thing. The guys can play. A blindfolded Lloyd showed us how to jive it up when fun becomes the nature of the game. Standing reverse side of the keyboard - Lloyd stumbled his way through Charlie Parker's "Donna Lee." When facing the keys - this can be a difficult undertaking. Lloyd for his part made his point although few in attendance got it. The crowd lapped the show up.
What can be said about Keiko Matsui? You either know her music or marvel in stunned silence. Matsui's minimalist compositions and sparse arrangements are remnants of the last New Age. - A time when the epic triad conquered and ruled the earth. Even the song titles - "Overture for the City", "Canvas", "Walking Through It" - are as bland as the performance itself. There's a sense some mysterious message of dramatic importance is being imparted with every mannered gesture and rhapsodic glissando but on closer examination the music is soulless owing more to the king of the majestic triad - Frank Mills whose Music Box Dancer set the standard for generations to come.
If there was one defining performance that can be certified jazz and most memorable it would be the blistering session saxophonist Kenny Garrett leveled the landscape with. Garrett plays for keeps. With Carlos McKinney at the keyboard, Chris Bond bass and Ron Bruner firing on all cylinders behind the kit - Garrett and company spanked the crowd with a fierce opener played at top speed. Ideas spilled from all directions many colliding and dispersing into fragments. Garrett knows how to entertain. Hip-hop is no sideline with the wizard as he goaded the audience into a good time call and response on the "Tick Tock Tune." Garrett never lacerated the ears with the relentless screeching many smooth jazz saxophonists prefer. Instead, there was a method to his improvisations - there were peaks and valleys - conflict and resolution. Drummer Ron Bruner was the perfect foil. Bruner can stir more interest and heat with a repetitive rhythmic figure than most certified drum Gods. The pulse was most hypnotic causing Garrett to keep the sing along moving absent any clue to when and how it would conclude. The effect was mesmerizing. Even when the ninety-minute performance was assured and nearing the end, Garrett and Bruner drove the beat even harder.
The Yellowjackets had a tough act to follow. No one in the long running band exhibits the personality or fire of Garrett. Instead, the band willingly took their places and played by the numbers.
Arrangements are seamless - compositions carefully scripted and solos range from steamy to sensible. The evening crowds were there to be entertained and compelled to dance. This is the time when a high-powered Latin band wins the day.
As the 12th annual Barbados Jazz Festival faded it left many planning for 2006 - my own thoughts returned to the numerous sights, sounds and smells that linger another year in the heart. The thrashing waves pounding the sea line of Bottom Bay, the lighthouse at Ragged Point under a noon day mist, the weary chattels along Bank Hall, patient waters of Miami Beach - many hugs and endearing smiles remind just how special life is on this magnificent Caribbean getaway.
Many thanks to Cheryl Carter, Gail Stewart, Gilbert Rowe and all of our friends at the Barbados Tourism Authority and Barbados Jazz Festival not to mention the numerous journalists, broadcasters and musicians we've come to know so well the past decade.