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Saturday 19 October 2019
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A cut above the rest: Saint Lucia Jazz 2019

Dianne Reeves
Dianne Reeves

NIGEL A CAMPBELL

IN the final days of the 2019 Saint Lucia Jazz Festival, produced in collaboration with Jazz at Lincoln Center (JALC) of New York, what became clear were not only the differences from previous editions of the festival, but the demarcation that places this event on another level from the other jazz festivals in the English-speaking Caribbean.

Not that there are many remaining, but certainly in TT one can see how the celebratory tendencies of local people render null and void any drive towards excellence. Objective measures of good and bad and subjective criticism of mediocrity should not be thrown away in reading the pulse of this reframed festival.

This was a festival of singers: great singers who transform lyrics and music into more than just songs, but occasions. Dianne Reeves, the headliner on Saturday, gave a masterclass in jazz vocal singing. With five Grammys under her belt, the range of tone and colour as she interplayed with her band of top musicians showed that those awards had gone to the rightful winner. Whether the “voice instrumental music” of Pat Metheny’s Minuano (Six Eight) or her take of Marley’s Waiting in Vain, Reeves breathes an air of excellence in her phrasing of these songs.

The Baylor Project at Gospel Jazz Brunch in St Lucia.

At the Gospel Jazz Brunch on Sunday, Jean Baylor effortlessly showcased the timbre that is right for both gospel and jazz. These voices put into context Caribbean female voices that have power but often lack the profound impact of voice over volume.

This was a festival of Caribbean pride. Martiniquan Mario Canonge played Antillean grooves on piano on Saturday at the IGY Rodney Bay Marina that resonated with the region’s DNA.

It also played with the idea that jazz can be and was reconstructed by Antillean musicians who have fed into an understanding that regional music is jazz music. As it was in the beginning, so it is now. We are all creole!

This is a festival of new interactions with the wider Caribbean-ness.

Trinidadian/Guyanese saxophonist Nubya Garcia (pronounced nu-buyer), born in the UK, brings her new relationship with her Caribbean heritage into contrast with her understanding that she is playing Afro-tinged jazz, a new British music. “I have never used that term, Caribbean jazz,” she said, “because I did not grow up in the Caribbean. I honestly don’t have a first-hand knowledge of what that is. I don’t really know enough about what Caribbean jazz is to call myself part of that. I am Caribbean and I play jazz.”

Shirleyann Cyril Mayers performs at the Gospel Jazz brunch in St Lucia. Photos by Andrea De Silva

Those at the festival heard and say otherwise. The importance of the festival to St Lucia came in for busy conversation among those who know. Tourism Minister Dominic Fedee said, “The festival is the most important marketing event. In fact, for a long time it was the number-one marketing event. So you can just imagine how important it is for the economy of this island.” Jason Olaine, director of programming and touring at JALC, noted that once the Events Company of St Lucia decided to deconstruct “the monster” and create alternative shows for non-jazz, that action spoke to JALC, since its mission is “to grow a global audience for jazz through performance, education and advocacy.”

The unintended consequence of change is surprise, which fits well within the context of jazz with its improvisatory mode, but, more importantly, it makes a perfect segue into the idea that tourism and music can be linked – but St Lucia tourism is anchored to the idea of quality over quantity.

The past festivals were all about money, and in a time of efficient spending, the value of the “real jazz fans” exceeds the value of the mass market music fan whose multiples are outweighed by the idea that foreign is better, and that dollars in the right places may make more sense than heads in the many beds.

A change of name to St Lucia Music Festival or a return to Pigeon Island would not dampen the potential for the festival to be a beacon of excellence and a bellwether of the current trend in luxury destination music festivals in the Caribbean.

First impressions are lasting impressions. Those last few days featured the possibilities of returning to just the music, the inefficiencies of fledgling event business models, the absurdity of in-demand overlapping concerts, but Saint Lucia Jazz Festival 2019 showed that Caribbean islands can make a difference in the global live music scene. It is a return to “a place where jazz fans started to find a home here in the Caribbean.”

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