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St. Lucia Jazz 2005

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Booming power, speed, full rhythmic and melodic range---it was all there. Strickland exuded that sense of being outside oneself, of being in the zone yet still connected to everything and everybody else in the moment.
The rain that I left at home had followed me across the Caribbean to the small, volcanic isle of St. Lucia, temporarily dampening my first evening there. with flight delays and document problems, I barely had time to chuck my bags and board a shuttle tothe evening's first event, a doubler bill at the Gaiety Theatre in the northwestern suburb of Rodney Bay.
But inside the Gaiety's well-laid out confines, the Ravi Coltrane Quartet quickly made the weather irrelevant. Accompanied by pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Drew Gress and drummer E. J. Strickland, Coltrane continued on the journey of finding his own artistic space while neither eschewing nor getting lost in his late father's heavyweight legacy.
On tenor and soprano, Coltrane delivered the mix of buttery-smooth intonations and free-boppish changes that are showcased on his latest disc, In Flux. The interplay between the four was as tight as expected, but one sensed---akin to watching tightly bunched racehorses down the final stretch---that someone was about to break out of the pack. Strickland seized that opportunity midway through the mid-tempo "Angular Realms to launch the first of several truly stunning solos. Booming power, speed, full rhythmic and melodic range---it was all there. Strickland exuded that sense of being outside oneself, of being in the zone yet still connected to everything and everybody else in the moment. The near-capacity crowd felt it, too, and responded with rapturous applause.
After a brief break, it was time for another legacy to be explored. Drummer Ben Riley kept time for Monk during the mid-'60s. With the maestro gone, Riley has decided to leave the piano chair vacant and rely on a four-horn frontline plus guitar and upright bass to explore Monk's music. The supple, swinging band included tenor man Wayne Escoffrey, Bruce Williams on alto (and soprano), Jay Brandford on baritone and trumpeter Don Sickler, who also handled arranging duties, plus bassist Peter Washington and guitarist Freddy Bryant. For his own part, Riley started off a bit tentative, as if wanting his guys to establish themselves first. But as the night progressed, Riley picked up the pace and put his authoritative stamp on the group. By the time Coltrane and Perdomo joined the group for "Evidence, the Monk Legacy Septet had endeared itself to the audience.

Save for a few brief but tasty sessions during the after-hours street concerts, that was about as much straight-ahead jazz as I would hear for the duration of the trip. (Monty Alexander, Pharoah Sanders, Kevin Mahogany and several local and regional jazz acts played before my arrival.)

From the Gaiety, the action shifted to the main stage at Pigeon Island, which was formerly a standalone fort and is now joined to the main island by a man-made causeway. There, Ronnie, Ricky, Ralph, Mike and Johnny---better known as New Edition---threw down a greatest hits package that recalled the Temptations or the Four Tops at their respective peaks. Jumping, twirling, dropping to their knees and just plain bogeying, the group worked up a sweat that of course led to their abandoning their fancy pinstripe suits. But it was on the ballads that they truly shined. Johnny Gill, in particular, was on fire, infusing his now customary vocal acrobatics with palpable pathos. Gill then took it to the next level by bringing out American Idol's Fantasia Barreno to join him for a section of an extended reading of "My My My. Needless to say, the crowd went wild.

The boys picked up the tempo for the closing number, "If It Isn't Love. If an encore had been on the cards, it wasn't delivered, but in a sense it was hardly needed. Both fans and newbies got all they could ever ask from New Edition.

The next day at Pigeon Island was all about Fantasia. With her engaging, emotional delivery, she trumped headliners the Isleys and support acts Dave Koz and St. Lucian sax hero Rob "Zi Taylor.

Taylor opened the Saturday proceedings amid blazing sunshine and the kind of humidity that made the cold-beverage sellers grin like Cheshire cats. Taylor used his easy rapport and heartfelt playing to good effect. It was largely in the service of his latest album, Rise Up, a pleasant if inoffensive collection of R&B tunes spiked with reggae and Caribbean flavors and, in some instances, Taylor's own vocals.

Then it was "baby mama time as Barreno repped for the "independent women, who judging from the rapturous applause and screams must have been the largest contingent in the venue. But the loudest cheers were saved for her post-Idol hit "Still in Love. Barreno ended her Caribbean coming-out party with tearful declarations of love for the audience.

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