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Staying Straight: The Third Anguilla Tranquility Jazz Festival

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Set amidst aqua waters, powder beaches, and myriad luxurious preoccupations, the Anguilla Tranquility Jazz Festival is becoming a contender in the Caribbean music festival arena.
From Reykjavik, Iceland to Vilnius, Lithuania, jazz events have become de rigueur throughout the world of international tourism and the jazz festival concept has blossomed into big business. Established festivals like St. Lucia's draw thousands of visitors, encouraging new gatherings to pop up on seemingly every strip of sand along the Caribbean chain. Though billed as jazz festivals, the majority of these events—particularly the newer ones—have taken to packing their schedules with everything from pop to R&B in order to attract younger, broader audiences. In sharp contrast, the Tranquility Jazz Festival, hosted by the tiny island of Anguilla for the past three years, has opted to distinguish itself by maintaining a strict jazz-only line-up of top musical quality.

Just 35 square miles, Anguilla boasts some of the finest beaches and clear, pristine waters in the world, and has long been one of the best kept secret destinations of the glitterati. In recent years, however, the island has taken pains to broaden its public image and establish itself as a premier getaway for all those seeking privacy, elevated standards, and peaceful quietude. Inevitably, Anguilla still caters to the platinum card set and everything from its plethora of secluded, one-of-a-kind villas to its fine dining comes at prices that could make the average traveler blanche.
In keeping with this atmosphere of lavish escapism and consistent with the high musical standards evident at the festival's 2004 incarnation, the third annual Anguilla jazz festival this November consisted of a roster of artists spanning a range of genres and featured some of the most renowned names in the business. Performers included Kenny Garret, Marlene Shaw, Trio Da Paz, Stephon Harris, Poncho Sanchez, and Ravi Coltrane, as well as a sampling of younger, emerging talent.
Spanning four days, the festival opened with a combined dinner and performance at the monstrous and sumptuous Cuisinart resort. Guests were treated first to a multi-course dinner, followed by an intimate concert by the legendary Marlene Shaw. Setting a high bar for the ensuing nights of entertainment, Shaw powered through a scintillating set that had the crowd eating out of her hand. Always a stellar performer, Shaw offered the crowd what it was looking for, blasting out a series of classic songs including a crafty take on her timeless hit "Go Away Little Boy. But in a surprise twist, Shaw finished the show with a devastatingly-delivered tableau of tunes linking together "Hope in a Hopeless World, "In the Ghetto, and "Keep on Trusting in God, leading listeners through heartfelt social critique and pointed political commentary, concluding with a resolute call for faith and continuance.

Taking maximum advantage of Anguilla's ideal temperatures and crystalline night skies, the festival shifted outdoor for nights two and three. While the second evening suffered from logistical difficulties and a crowd that dwindled as time passed, those patient enough to wait through the long set changes, sound-check difficulties, and delayed arrival of Poncho Sanchez experienced a night of diverse and masterfully-executed music. Taking the stage first, Ravi Coltrane opened the proceedings with a set of tunes ranging from an intricate rendition of Wayne Shorter's "United and a foray into the abstract with "For Zoe, to a hyperactive take on "Giant Steps, and finally ended with a deeply-felt, almost religious interpretation of one of his mother Alice Coltrane's compositions.

Building from the energy of Coltrane's finale, the evening's next group, Brazilian jazz artists Trio Da Paz, began with a fluid and elegant version of the Jobim classic "Wave, and proceeded to deliver—with the assistance of guest artists Claudia Acuna, Craig Handy, and Stephon Harris—the most memorable musical moments of the festival. Proving flexible masters of the form, the Trio Da Paz musicians each seamlessly blended their distinct voices together with Craig Handy's muscular saxophone, Acuna's poignant vocals, and Harris's elaborate vibraphone lines, equally enthralling the audience whether in trio, duet, or quartet mode. The highlight of the set came as the trio, joined by Harris, raced through a joyful rendition of "Keep the Spirit Singing. All four musicians played brilliantly, enjoying the chance to challenge each other as they traded solos, and offering a vibrant example of the appeal of the unique musical pairings engendered at international festivals. The evening ended with a late-night set by Poncho Sanchez, whose exuberant Latin-jazz rhythms and James Brown-inspired vocals kept the remaining audience awake and even brought a few brave souls to their feet for some fleet-footed dancing.

The third night began with a trio of artists featuring nineteen year-old vocalist Erin Boheme, twenty year-old pianist Taylor Eigsti, and twenty-two year-old trumpeter Christian Scott. Following this exhibition of jazz's next generation, the night continued with a joint performance by jazz greats Mulgrew Miller, Kenny Garrett, Nicholas Payton, Ivan Taylor, and Rodney Green. These experienced musicians delivered modern takes on such classic tunes as Brubek's "In My Own Sweet Way," Hubbard's "Up Jumped Spring," and "Body and Soul. Though lacking some of the genuineness and ease of the Trio Da Paz set, the inevitable pyrotechnics of this grouping compensated for some of the missed intimacy, and the sheer ingenuity on display was compelling. Peaking, appropriately, with a concluding romp through Gillespie's "Woody 'n You, the quartet's fiery solos—particularly Green's adventurous drum work—reminded those present that straight-ahead jazz today encompasses a huge range of sonic possibility. Following a brief set change, the night finished with a disappointingly drab performance by Freddie Cole, whose smoothly-delivered lounge act both fell short of expectations and was out of sync with the energy and style of the rest of the festival.

Reserving the final day for full-on relaxation and informal celebrating, the conclusion of the festival took place on the beach outside local restaurant and beach-side bar, Johnno's. The party kicked-off well before the music began with locals, tourists, and visitors from St. Maarten crowding the open-air bar to bursting point by mid-day and transforming the normally-quiet beach into a jumble of revelers vying for grilled lobster, fish sandwiches, and rum punches. Unfortunately for late-comers and in a repeat of the previous year's logistical weakness, supplies ran short and service time ran too long, leaving many with few options and some without patience. Despite these small set-backs, the evening developed apace, with a local band warming up the audience before the night's main act, the WES Group, took the stage. This talented group of Washington, D.C musicians closed out the festival with a fittingly straightforward, hard-swinging set of propulsive and buoyant music.

Set amidst aqua waters, powder beaches, and myriad luxurious preoccupations, the Anguilla Tranquility Jazz Festival is becoming a contender in the Caribbean music festival arena. With the completion of its third year, the festival has proven its determination to maintain high musical standards, as well as its ability to draw a diverse array of talents from around the world, all without sacrificing its self-proclaimed mission to stay straight. To firmly establish itself among peers, however, festival organizers must make greater strides toward attracting an audience as diverse as its musicians, as well as a greater level of participation from locals. With such renowned performers on stage, there shouldn't be an empty seat in the house, let alone evenings with thin attendance. The trick for Anguilla will be balancing its atmosphere of refined exclusivity with its powerful sense of open friendliness. With that goal in mind, jazz may in fact be the perfect catalyst.

Visit Tranquility Jazz Festival on the web.

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