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Barbados Jazz Festival 2006 - Jill Scott and The Cuban All-Stars Shine Brightly!

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It was sometime in November when the invitation arrived to cover the Barbados Jazz Festival 2006 for Ejazznews.com and The Jazz Report Magazine. The popular festival resides the second calendar week of January just as winter's cold dispiriting embrace takes hold.

Only hours after holiday cheer subsides and turns to dread I focus on the moment I would lazily strut down the stairs of Air Canada flight 1240 onto the sun-drenched tarmac of Grantley Adams International Airport setting foot once again in lovely Barbados.

Something quite inexplicable occurs. The shoulders recline. The mind ceases to worry and King Nobula of Nigeria can't reach me seeking expertise in retrieving $25,000,000 secretly stashed in some remote bank account only the King and I are privy too. And yes - don't forget Bonnie the online pill merchant who has this unique ability to step around block sender and seduce with the latest sale on kidney medication even though I'm not in need. Sorry folks it's time to vacate!

If there are those to blame for winter reprieve it's Barbados Tourism Authority - Cheryl Carter, Gail Stewart and company not to mention festival organizer Gilbert Rowe.

A couple years back Jazz.Fm91.1 broadcast live from the Casaurina Resorts. The award-winning environmentally conscious estate has been sold - temporarily closed and under renovation. Consequently, Jazz.Fm CEO Ross Porter did early morning reportage back to Toronto during Ralph Benmurgie's morning show.

Porter resided around the corner at Turtle Beach Resort from where I camped at the magnificent Bougainvillea Beach Resort. If you're thinking Barbados, this is the place to be. Windows spread wide engaging the soul-cleansing breeze to pass through uninhibited. The beach is only a few yards away bordered by a forest of green. Staff and food are first rate.

We landed 12:40PM the 9th of January passing comfortably through immigration and baggage claim.

Everything looks new. Each year something dramatic happens to the commercial landscape and with great consideration.

After locating room 5314 and hanging clothes the first business of the day was an impromptu dip in the Caribbean Sea. I quietly reassure myself throughout the year that nature's hot tub can revive time worn muscles and rekindle adventure. It never fails.

It was at Sunbury Great House the 13th edition of the Barbados Jazz Festival began with song stress Roberta Gambarini.

Roberta is a singer's singer. Every phrase and motif is perfectly shaped and balanced. Gambarini understands the essentials of great singing from the artful delivery of poetic lyrics - through mood, tone, rhythm and timing. She excels at balladry as evident on Billy Strayhorn's 'Lush Life.' From this vantage point there is no greater melody in jazz. Gambarini persuaded the theme through each dramatic encounter pausing at just the right intervals before resuming narrative.

With pianist Ronnie Matthews providing sympathetic support - John Lee bass and Tarus Alexander drums, Gambarini soared through 'That Old Black Magic' and 'On The Sunny Side of the Street' - based on the classic improvised exchanges between Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Stitt and Sonny Rollins

Gambarini is not an animated singer long on hand and wrist gestures or an entertainer with a long-winded story to share but more a throwback to a time when the best singers stood squarely in front of the band and sang with purity and purpose.

Roy Hargrove on the other hand is in constant motion as if his life-battery comes charged with a hundred and ninety-nine year life span. I've seen Hargrove on many occasions and he never disappoints. I've always had a feeling that somewhere above “The Hand of Immense Talent" reached down and tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Your it! Get playing"

Hargrove's set was one fired-up display of thoughtful far-reaching solos each with a distinct temperament and character. Between the post-modern ruminations and Latin-tinged escapades Hargrove pressed the golden flugelhorn to his lips during the timeless standard 'Fools Rush In' and played with clarity and passion steadily constructing precise phrases until the final verses dissolved into the rich harmonic framework of Matthews shifting chords.

Saxophonist Justin Robinson provided the perfect foil moving each exploration onto surfaces just beyond Hargrove's stance especially during Herbie Hancock's 'The Maze'. Both bassist Lee and drummer Alexander agitated and congregated near every intersection steering the band into overdrive. This was great Jazz as we know it today.

As for a venue The Sunbury Great House is absolutely stunning. Tall mahoganies lit in deep greens and golden browns stand majestically above seating strategically positioned so all had a clear view of the handsomely trimmed stage.

Night two at the Rum Factory & Heritage Park is reserved for Bajan performers. It's taken years of encouragement and growth for this to happen. To those in attendance both Artwork and Wayne Willock didn't disappoint.

Artwork, on the cusp of it's 21st anniversary and led by drummer Errol Bradshaw played a set laced with familiar Caribbean flavors. The music had motion but short on melodic invention. The pace? Easy and breezy. Each player, from keyboardists John Roett and Stephan Walcott had individual moments. The most touching came when bassist Rickey Aimey spoke of the recent loss of his wife and the community support he's received living with the recent tragedy. Aimey dedicated 'Bajan Bounce' in memory and was joined on stage by guitarist Ian Alleyne decked out in wrap around sarong.

As a band - Wayne Willock's unit fared better. With the uproarious James Lovell behind the drum kit and Nigel Willock on congas the ensemble skirmished in just the right zones giving the band a lift at just the appropriate moments.

Front man Wayne Willock surrounded himself with an array of wooden flutes, a timbale and other percussive devises all of which he played with great skill. The set was structured around indigenous rhythms native to the island with a bit of reggae mixed in. As 'Poonka' (Willocks) observed with nationalistic pride and the nation's colors fully displayed - “this is an expression of our musical selves." Throughout, bassist Julian Griffith and keyboardist Leonard Griffith injected the right amount of color and smart counterpoint.

Both bands faced the inevitable converging flash storms that appeared in large bands. Ten minutes before arrival the grounds stood saturated. There was an unspoken resolve in the night air implying heaven rules the course of events and there will be no argument.

Jill Scott? I must admit only a fleeting notion of who this woman is. It's probable some names that signify contemporary rhythm and blues get buried under heavy publicity accorded bling-touting rappers. Scott is an immensely popular Grammy Award winning artist better known to her legion of fans than the broader public or let's say a Queen Latifah. For this I plead ignorance. But no more!

How can you justly describe a Scott performance? Artful, poetic, infectious, skillful, and uplifting? How about those billowing rhythms that vamp along hitting the chest in sub beats?

The North Philadelphia native entered the massive stage at Wildey Gymnasium to thunderous applause - one of the rare occasions the normally subdued crowd chose to unwind.

Bajan men and women come dressed to the tens! A concert of this stature means hours spent grooming and conversing about the evening ahead at the local beauty parlor with serious consideration placed on eye-popping fashion.

Scott peered into the capacity hall and declared she thought this was a regular festival gig and if she had known this was a formal occasion would have dressed accordingly. Red T--shirt and fancy jeans more than complimented her voluptuous presence.

Scott's seventy-five-minute set moved beat by beat to a imperturbable groove. Scott reminisced and goaded the audience. Each song from the opener 'Golden' down through the hits “Gettin' In The Way, Love Rain, Whatever, One Is The Magic', and the encore 'He Loves Me' spoke of personal encounters and raw emotion - loss, gain, love and pain. All of this weaved into a rich tapestry of churning rhythm and ingenious compositions. There were echoes of Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Weather Report crafted in the arrangements.

Scott's voice stands complete. There were times her phrasing displayed a jazz cadence and moments of operatic proportions. None of this presented as an act of self-absorbed showmanship but an extension of an artist riding a sustained period of growth and reflection. Through it all Scott came across as genuine and everybody's favorite sister.

Scott was given the 'We Love You Jill' reception when escorted to the sometimes-contentious media scrum following the performance. Scott lowered herself into the comfort seat answering each inquiry with grace, humility and self-deprecating humor.

Lionel Richie and jazz? Where do the two intersect? Actually, they don't!

In Barbados it's of prime importance to stack the jazz festival with the familiar. Roberta Flack, Lou Rawls, Gladys Knight, Luther Vandross and Patti LaBelle have taken the place of notable jazz legends such as Ella, Sarah, Betty, Carmen who in another era would probably be in the mix. It's about drawing power and sounds that reverberate in daily life. Richie to this day still lingers about middle-of-the-road radio formats.

Richie by all accounts attracted numbers rivaling Luther Vandross's memorable show a few years past. In his 57th year, he showed no evidence of fatigue or aging. This is a man who truly loves the material he's written and treats the stage as a point of privilege.

From the opening downbeat of 'Penny Lover' through the massive catalog of hits -'Se La, Easy, Just To Close To You, Sail On, Hello, Three Times A Lady,' the crowd sang and swayed. Richie manned the stage appearing in every visual precinct. Behind the electric piano he proved himself more than competent working in consort with multi- keyboardist Chuckii Booker.

The ninety-minute set caught fire when Richie and band revisited Commodore classic's 'Dancing On The Ceiling' and 'Brick House.' From there a direct route to the rapturous closer - 'All Night Long.'

It's hard to gage a concert like this knowing there are few spontaneous moments and every detail is timed and programmed for dramatic effect. It's best to submit, remember, enjoy and move on.

Saturday and Sunday's at Farley Hill Park stand as the most anticipated from this journalist's position. In most cases it's not the music (seventy-five per 'smooth jazz) that's the draw, but the parish in which the locale resides, the exquisite scenery and the wonderful human-to-human encounters throughout the weekend.

Saturday was local favorite Arturo Tappan's day this being his sixth appearance at the festival.

Tappin celebrated with a band that included Bajans Scott Gault, Elan Trotman and Miles Robertson. Tappin segued from one saxophone to another through 'Rupee's Tempted To Touch, Love Won't Let Me Wait, Ordinary People, Java, I Wish, Tobago and the encore 'Mr. DJ's Waistline Shots.' Pulse and melody were in meter and mode with much of what has transpired the past twenty-five years in pop jazz.

The young student Cuban Quintet Chicos del Habana proved to be a pleasing opener. The band faired well playing traditional Cuban rhythms but found themselves in conflict with the often-difficult Charlie Parker numbers. There was considerable tension between the bassist and drummer, 18 year-old Gypsy Calzadilla who had difficulty locating the essence of swing. Everything changed dramatically when all arrived back on solid footing. Calzadilla is a marvel to watch.

For his part Norman Brown stole the thunder. Just as performers Tappin, Chicago native Gary Davis and Boney James owe much to Grover Washington, David Sanborn and King Curtis, Brown falls directly in line with George Bensen and Wes Montgomery.

This day Brown seized the genre momentarily wrestling it away from players like Earl Klugh who never advanced the music beyond mundane riffs and milk-toast rhythms - giving the music backbone and muscle. Brown caught fire playing selections from his hit recording 'After The Storm' and Grammy Award winning 'Just Chillin'.

Brown looks the part - far from the contrived posturing of Boney James.

James suited up for the grand finale wearing an Earth, Wind and Fire T-shirt, boots, jeans and tall hat. I don't get it? James performance is one that has been given many thousands of times by others with greater ability. It certainly wasn't the awkward dance steps that captivated.

I've seen Najee do this act and engage the audience - the same for Dave Koz. James doesn't really do much other than whip around stage and incite the occasional group-hand clap preferably on two and four. Perhaps one must clear the visuals and just listen to catch the drift.

If you were looking for stellar musicianship of international stature, top honors certainly were awarded the Cuban All-Stars. Bassist Charles Flores was absolutely frightening as was world- renowned drummer Horatio 'El Negro' Hernandez. Mix in Puerto Ricans - reedman Miguel Zenon and percussionist Giovanni Hildago and the heated climate on stage surpassed that of the equator.

Trumpeter Michael Rodriquez and pianist Elio Villafranca exercised grand moments of fluid improvisation and precise ensemble work. If you we're contemplating bringing back a memorable highlight from the hill encapsulating the pinnacle of artistry heard over the weekend - this was it!

Once again another grand visit comes to an auspicious close. Looking back I would venture to say Jill Scott, the Cuban All-Stars, Roberta Gambarini, and Roy Hargrove nurtured the soul and mind. Bajan 'Poonka' Willocks brought us closer to the roots and heartbeat of Bajan culture.

Many thanks to the BTA for again making our stay a delight. A big heartfelt thank you also goes out to Sharon Hugh White and staff at Bougainvillea Beach Resort for being incredibly accommodating and festival director Gilbert Rowe.

~ Bill King



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