NIGEL A CAMPBELL
A transformed Saint Lucia Jazz Festival started in earnest in new locations on the island on Thursday to moderately-sized, intimate audiences, as the organisers have reckoned that the money spent in past festivals would be better spent on “keeping it real.”
With a full programme curated by festival collaborator Jazz at Lincoln Centre (JALC), featuring daily overlapping events, choice becomes a luxury. Day one starred young artists from St Lucia and the Caribbean diaspora, performing in two locations that allowed for unique perspectives on modern jazz.
On the pirate ship, The Pearl, the audience saw Russell Hall’s eNigma and St Lucian duo Rob Zii and Phyness; the pop-up entertainment facility purpose-built for the event at Gros Islet on the beach hosted diaspora children Patrick Bartley of Jamaican descent with his band Dreamweaver Society, and Montreal-born Haitian Jowee Omicil. Both artists are saxophonists, but they approach the jazz idiom from different perspectives.
Bartley, an admitted millennial who is enthralled by video games and art, tells music stories, sonic visualisations, that draw on the jazz idiom’s rich heritage. He was mentored by ace trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, and his performance reflected blues and technical innovation grounded in the school of Coltrane and legacy performers, while crafting melodies that were modern in sound, and suggestive of familiar ideas and images.
Omicil is a unique presence, playing multiple reeds and pianos, channelling an African heritage and an Antillean vibe that had people singing along to wordless chants and being surprised at every turn by the mastery of his instruments and an improvised performance aesthetic.
On day two, the big guns arrived.
Without veering into hyperbole, Gregory Porter is simply one of the finest jazz singers alive. His rich baritone had hints of Billy Eckstine and Barry White and the cadence of jazz, gospel and soul music. His duet with Ledisi on the Quincy Jones classic Everything Must Change had the full house – at another fabric building at Rodney Bay – giving a standing ovation, while every other song was a testament to the star power of this singer, as applause rippled throughout.
Earlier that evening, African-American singer Somi (in the true sense: she has Rwandan-Ugandan parentage) delivered what was to many the performance of the night with her Song of Protest and Memory, a reflection of songs that celebrated the spirits of Miriam Makeba and Nina Simone, among others.
African chants, superb musicianship from her international band including Senegalese guitarist, Hervé Samb and Japanese pianist Toru Dodo along with a spirited trumpet cameo from Trinidadian Etienne Charles, and a song set of many of her originals that resonated lyrically with ideas of protest and empathy with the struggles of people of colour, domestic abuse and gender prejudice all this made an audience sit up and pay attention.
While these topics are emotionally heavy, her voice and performance style kept the audience entertained and elated. Somi, in answering the question “where does home live inside her voice,” finds an African presence and the “in between” of heritage and location as sources for inspiring music and songs which had an impact that night.
St Lucian saxophonist Augustin “Jab” Duplessis opened the concert with a display of original creole Caribbean jazz.
The 2019 jazz festival represents a continuing transition from the “jam on Pigeon Island” to a more focused and intimate series of concerts, like that at Dizzy’s Club at JALC.
Thomas Leonce, CEO of Events Company St Lucia, the company mandated to coordinate and execute the festival, told Sunday Newsday, “The transformation began in 2017. We thought the festival had grown to a point where it moved away from being a jazz festival – which was the intention in the beginning – and it had morphed into a music festival, and it became a monster that needed to be fed more and more and more. By that, I mean more money.”
The thinking in 2017, he explained, was “to bring it back to what it was when it started way back in 1992.”
He added that those extraneous elements that had crept into the jazz festival were removed and placed into a new event, the two-day Root and Soul Festival earmarked for August 2019 at Pigeon Island.
Leonce notes that jazz is an “intimate setting, so we have a mix of venues, indoor, outdoor, a boat cruise. It’s quite a mix of activities for a jazz festival without spending too much money.”
Days three and four were scheduled to feature multiple Grammy-winners Dianne Reeves and Christian McBride, along with Etienne Charles, Marion Canonge of Martinique and more.