02/01/05

Air Jamaica Jazz & Blues Festival 2005

What if you received a last-minute invite to cover a jazz and blues festival for a jazz magazine and there’s pretty much no jazz or blues on the bill? That may sound like a Zen-like question, but there’s a simple answer: If it’s late January, the temperature’s colder than a well-digger’s ass and there’s snow everywhere, you buck up and say, “I’d love to!” (Luckily, I adore Jamaican music and have a high-tolerance for 1970s pop.)

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Michael Williams

Steven "Cat" Coore of Third World with saxophonist Arturo Tappin at the Air Jamaica Jazz and Blues Festival.

The Air Jamaica Jazz & Blues Festival has always catered to catholic tastes, while leaning heavily on R&B acts, but it would also present musicians who are traditionally considered mainstream jazz artists (last year that included Monty Alexander and Cassandra Wilson). This year, however, the promoters from Turn Key Productions focused almost entirely on adult-oriented pop.

Because of the fest’s new focus, the catchphrase “The Art of Music” was added, and it’s likely that an overall name change will happen for next year. But it’s hard to blame the folks who put on this show for sticking with this formula rather than trying to wedge in jazz acts. Why? Because the Air Jamaica Jazz & Blues Festival was packed all three days, as were Montego Bay’s sold-out hotels. And the people who attended the fest---almost all Jamaicans---simply loved the music they heard, jazz or not.

Thursday

Pocket Band, vocalist Toni Norville and trumpeter Dwight Richards, who was playing Chuck Mangione’s “Feels So Good” when I hit the festival grounds, kicked off the evening, though not many people were on hand to hear them due to the threat of rain.

Bajan saxophonist Arturo Tappin came out next, and he played up his strengths---good looks, Cheez Whiz sound---in a set of songs that big-upped Grover Washington Jr. (a dreamy “Winelight”) and Jamaica’s jazz-ska pioneers the Skatalites (a laidback take on “Eastern Standard Time”). About midway through his set the skies opened up, so I joined my journalist colleagues and retreated to the happening hospitality tent sponsored by Digicel Jamaica, a cell-phone company that knows a thing or two about public relations.

As the rain cleared up, Roberta Flack, who once lived in Jamaica, came on stage to a tremendous roar. Since some of Flack’s most popular work was in duet with Donny Hathaway (who died in 1979), she was joined by the muscle-bound singer Tony Terry (who drove the crowd’s women wild) for “The Closer I Get to You” and “Where Is the Love?” as well as her duet smash with Peabo Bryson, “Tonight, I Celebrate My Love.” Flack played piano a bit, as on “Killing Me Softly” and “Feel Like Making Love,” but otherwise prowled the stage with microphone in hand, her revealing, sparkling purple shirt threatening to spring open like rain clouds up above.

Lou Rawls was also resplendent in purple, and his polished set meant medley after medley of chart-toppers such as “Groovy People,” “Natural Man,” “See You When I Get There,” “You're Gonna Miss My Lovin'” and “Lady Love” (the last a personal fave of mine and anchorman Ron Burgundy). While there were no surprises from Rawls, he’s a wonderful entertainer and his baritone voice is in tremendous shape. The audience, singing along to every song at the top of their lungs, ate it up.

Opening-night closers Third World are known as the “Reggae Ambassadors,” and it’s true that over the past 30 years they’ve managed to score numerous chart hits by assimilating disco, R&B and funk into their reggae mix. But when playing live Third World stays close to its roots, which means performing classics such as “Reggae Ambassador,” “Reggae Party,” “Now That We've Found Love,” “Try Jah Love” and “Forbidden Love” (amorous band, them) and engaging in a surprise duet with Toots Hibbert on Bob Marley’s “Lively Up Yourself.” But because Third World’s conservatory-trained musicians are anything but ordinary, they often extended the tunes with impressive improvisations and dubbed-out grooves. Steven "Cat" Coore is a virtuoso guitarist, displaying flamenco influences on his acoustic and psychedelic rock on his electric, especially on the band’s greatest hit, “96 Degrees” (about the 1865 Morant Bay Rebellion). When Coore brought out his electric cello and tore down the house during an encore of “Rastaman Chant” it just seemed like he was showing off---which is a very good thing.

Friday

Definitely the weakest night of the festival, I could have gone the entirety of Friday without seeing a headlining performance and still felt like I hadn’t missed anything. Luckily I did hang around, which allowed me to see, on stage left, a 30-foot scaffolding supporting several giant speakers buckle, bend and lean precariously. Thankfully, it did not collapse. There was but one announcement to the crowd about what was happening, and that occurred about a half-hour into the near-disaster. It took more than two hours to get the scaffolding righted and secured, but the audience was surprisingly blasé about the delay.

The show finally resumed at 1:45 a.m. (45 minutes after the whole evening was supposed to have ended), but the momentum was lost. Boyz II Men, who are now three not four, performed a forgettable set backed by prerecorded tunes. (“They come all the way here and sing to tracks?” asked an incredulous Michael A. Edwards of the Jamaica Observer.) While the audience loved the music and had obviously waited a long time to hear the Boyz' four-part (er, I mean three-part) harmonies, there’s no denying that the group is about this far away from being a Vegas or Disney stage act.

Julio Iglesias played a set heavy on Spanish-language tunes broadcast by a faulty P.A., pretty much guaranteeing that he had a steady stream of exhausted people leaving the venue throughout his performance, which finally finished at 3:45 a.m.

Other international headliners on Friday included the Cuban dance band Azucar Negra and smooth-jazz harpist Roberto Parrera of Paraguay, but the highlights of the evening were from the local talent.

The multitalented Dr. Kathy Brown---a physician and music teacher in Kingston during the day, a jazz and reggae pianist at night---played a really fun but too-short set, mostly consisting of standards such as “Caravan” and “Afro Blue.”

Robert “Dubwise” Browne, the son of legendary reggae bassist Glen Browne, wowed the crowed with his Hendrix-ian ax slinging and charismatic stage presence. Dubwise has played with everyone from jazz pianist Monty Alexander to dancehall deejay Shaggy, and his music touched on elements from many genres.

Throughout the night the biggest buzz was happening in the Digicel tent, especially during the scaffolding delay and sporadic rainfall. The Black Zebra Band, featuring guitarists and singers Wayne McGregor and Mark Pritchett (managing director of the Jamaica Observer) kept the crowd happy---including, for a spell, Prime Minister P.J. Patterson---by performing loosey-goosey versions of everything from Willie Dixon's “(I'm Your) Hoochie Coochie Man” to the White Stripes' “Seven Nation Army” and Radiohead’s “Creep”---not the first tunes you expect to hear from a “bar band” in Jamaica.

Saturday

The final night featured by far and away the best lineup, boasting Norah Jones, Toots & the Maytals, Dionne Warwick, Rosanne Cash, Abdel Wright, To-Isis and VC. The only mistake was ending the show with Jones, whose sleepytime music was a major letdown following crowd favorite Warwick and the electrifying Toots Hibbert. Jones should have performed midway through the evening, just after the equally sedate Cash, whose father Johnny lived in a hilltop mansion that can be seen from the festival grounds.

The evening’s opening acts---singer VC and six-member vocal group To-Isis---demonstrated the strong tradition of soulful crooning in Jamaican music. Valton “VC” Craigie has the strong voice of an R&B balladeer, but he sings roots reggae. He performed several original, conscious tunes, such as "Gwaan," "Roughneck" and “By His Deeds,” the last of which was a big hit in Jamaica a few years back as proven by the crowd passionately singing along. VC has yet to put out a full-length CD, but here’s hoping it happens soon.

To-Isis’ performance is one of the reasons why Boyz II Men’s show seemed even weaker a day later. This young vocal sextet can nail harmonies with envious ease, and their exuberant stage show engaged the early-evening audience. Like VC, they shared the same backing band, who easily ran through Bob Marley numbers and reggae-fied versions of pop tunes, such as Bryan Adams’ goopy “Heaven”---which was actually pretty darn good thanks to the lead tenor pipes of Richard Morgan (or perhaps it was twin bro Robert). A Jamaican boy band, sure---the guys double as models and actors---but To-Isis has the singing talent to break out to a large audience outside of their homeland.

Abdel Wright is a hotly tipped Jamaican singer-songwriter, and his long-delayed debut CD is scheduled for release this spring. Inspired by Tracy Chapman and Johnny Cash as much as by Bob Marley, Wright’s heartfelt tunes reflect his difficult upbringing in an SOS Children’s Village, his rehabilitating stint in prison and his deep spirituality. Offstage Wright is charming, funny and engaging, but the two previous times I saw him perform he was deadly serious onstage. Granted, he was touring small rock clubs in the U.S. and, though he was warmly received, nobody knew who he was, so perhaps it was just nerves then. But at home Wright was totally relaxed, and his winning performance reflected that.

Wright’s portion of the show began with technical difficulties---there was no sound for several minutes---but he just cracked jokes about it while strumming his guitar. When his instrument's level was finally raised, Wright told the crowd to “clap ya self” for being patient this night as well as during the scaffolding crisis. He then noted with a laugh that if this were Sting, the raucous dancehall music event in Kingston, he would have had to dodge “missiles” from the notoriously confrontational crowd.

Joined by a percussionist on cajon, Wright played acoustic guitar and harmonica like a folk troubadour. The duo ran through tunes off Wright’s self-titled debut, such as “Quicksand,” “Ruffest Times” and “Babylon Wall” (a stirring anti-war protest), but the biggest response was for their version of Marley’s “Redemption Song,” which had the entire audience singing along.

After a lackluster performance by Roseanne Cash---people just didn’t know her songs---Dionne Warwick came out and did a set brimming with classic tunes that her fans responded to with glee. Even when Warwick introduced a slightly crass and too-long commercial for her 40th anniversary tour program (“Buy one as you leave!”), the audience merely chuckled. But then it's tough to lose a crowd with classic songs such as “Walk on By,” “Heartbreaker,” “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?,” “I Know I'll Never Love This Way Again,” “What the World Needs Now” and “That's What Friends Are For,” to name but a few of the hits that Warwick and her band breezed through.

Frederick “Toots” Hibbert is a giant of Jamaican music, with his 1968 hit “Do the Reggay” providing the now-modified name of a sound that is known the world over. While he’s getting more than a little thick around the midsection (hey, who isn’t?), Toots is still a tireless performer, and his concert was the highlight of the festival. He leads his band like James Brown, cueing them for explosive accents and encouraging them to kick out the jams during extended sections, which he enthusiastically danced to or joined in on by playing keyboards.

Toots and the Maytals performed like a very tight unit because they have been touring the world in support of their Grammy-nominated CD True Love, which features remakes of classic material in duet with singers from country and blues (Bonnie Raitt, Jeff Beck, Willie Nelson), rock (Gwen Stefani, Keith Richards, Ryan Adams) and reggae (Shaggy, Ken Booth, Bunny Wailer). The hits, and the energy, never stopped: “Come Down,” “Pressure Drop,” “Sweet and Dandy,” “Bam Bam,” “Country Road” (“take me home / to the place / where I belong / West Jamaica”), “These Arms of Mine,” “Still Movin',” “Monkey Man” and the set closer “54-46 (Was My Number),” which was all but reduced to the chorus and a vamp---all the better for droppin’ legs.

Just as Toots was finishing a rain began to fall. It lasted through the early part of Norah Jones’ performance, which further hampered her soggy set. It’s not that Jones’ concert was bad; it just felt severely out of place following Toots, especially at two in the morning. The crowd that stayed got to hear radio hits “Don’t Know Why” and “Sunrise,” and they were thankful for that, but there was also a large number folks who had peaked with Toots and were ready to go to bed on a high (literally and figuratively).

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