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John Hollenbeck’s Claudia Quintet at the Earshot Jazz Festival

The thought of taking in jazz on a Caribbean island, especially in mid-January when many American locales are buried in snow or just freezing their you-know-whats off, has to appeal to almost anyone, even those who aren’t into jazz. With that in mind, even hard-core jazz purists probably wouldn’t have gotten too riled up during the smooth Barbados 11th Annual Jazz Festival. The BET-sponsored event was spread over a week, with shows in different venues on the more populated side of the 166-square-mile island, and featured 11 mostly contemporary jazz and neosoul-oriented artists.

For the sake of authenticity, or possibly redemption, there was at least one bonafied jazz performer on the lineup: Herbie Hancock. He, in fact, was the highpoint of the festival and not solely because he was a mainstream act. His concert was one of the rare moments when the creative keyboardist actually satisfied all his various fan factions. Normally, if Hancock’s funky he loses traditional listeners; if he’s esoteric or avant-garde he loses the funk and mainstream crowd; and if goes mainstream he loses the funk and mind-expanding folks.

However, at the outdoor midweek night concert under bright stars at the Sherbourne Conference Center in St. Michael everything clicked. Much of the credit has to go to Hancock’s choice of material and band: bassist Scott Colley, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and saxophonist Ron Thomas. Hancock has been touring with them for about two years, and they were extremely dynamic and cohesive, playing excellent versions of hits and lesser-known tunes. “Cantaloupe Island” was a definite crowd-pleaser, and it the highlight was Thomas’ soulful riffs and his playing in tandem with Hancock.

Equally satisfying during Hancock’s set was “Dolphin Dance.” The tune was done as a challenging but never too-far-gone four-part suite. Due to the ensemble’s invigorating energy and unbelievable musicianship, the audience, which was clearly not a jazz crowd, was still enthralled by the song. It, in turn provided an easy transition into a funk-fusion groove from the keyboardist’s very popular Headhunter era. Slowly evolving around Thomas’ flute lead, Hancock and Colley traded off with Carrington that eventually crescendoed into a full fledged funk-fusion jam that was as hot as the local pepper mustard.

New jazz, R&B and gospel vocalist Lizz Wright, working with a tight and fluid trio, opened the night Hancock performed. She sang strongly and passionately for notable numbers such as evocative classic “Afro-Blue,” soul- searching ballad “Find the Answer” and inspirational “Salt,” the title track of her debut CD. Surprisingly though, the youthful singer received a rather lukewarm response from the very polite and attentive audience. In contrast, India.Arie, who was in the front row, savored every note as she sang along and thoroughly enjoyed Wright’s set.

Arie also fared well during her neosoul show, which strangely took place at Garfield Sobers Auditorium, in St. Michael. The facility, resembling a college basketball gymnasium, was an odd setting, especially considering all the beautiful, natural splendor of the island and near-perfect weather. In performance, Arie alternated between playing acoustic and electric guitar. Through it all, the feminist, socially conscious singer pleased the crowd with the resounding organ-driven “Always in My Head,” “Talk to Her” and “Summertime,” done as a duet with her mother.

Kirk Whalum, with his hard-jamming quintet, opened for Arie, and the group lost power for about 10 minutes during its set. Always an infallible and effervescent performer, Whalum quickly regrouped by taking his sax into the audience, who were delighted. Once things returned to normal Whalum returned to the stage. From there, he continued with contemporary grooves, gospel-jazz and featured his singer-brother Kevin on several tunes.

Over the weekend the concerts shifted to Farley Hill National Park in St. Peter. Temperatures in the upper 70s to lower 80s beautifully accentuated the shows, with plenty of leafy mahogany trees providing shade. This was the perfect venue for the jazz festival, its stage set on the ruins of the old burnt-down Farley mansion. Once the most magnificent property in Barbados, it has an amphitheatre area on a hillside that provides panoramic views of coast at its summit. That’s how the island is depicted on postcards and it’s hard to resist taking pictures up there.

Down on the stage, each day featured four acts and went into the early evening. Kem, a younger version of popular singer Al Jarreau, got things underway for the first day with stirring singing and a solid band. Richard Bona, playing bass and singing/chanting, won new fans as he blew them away with his incredible talent. Hiroshima played a long set of Asian-fused contemporary and R&B-flavored numbers. On the other hand, conguero Poncho Sanchez and his mighty nine piece Latin-jazz group’s music was very familiar to the crowd who quickly got in step with them. Tunes “One Mint Julep,” “El Shing-A-Ling” and the title track from Sanchez’s latest CD, Out of Sight!, created a lively party atmosphere.

The closing concert had as headliners the ever-venerable Fourplay, who are always able to win over crowds wherever they perform. The other acts were vocalists such as R&B/rocker Kal David (also a guitarist), the gospel-oriented Dana and the contemporary guitarist Steve Oliver. Meanwhile, keyboardist Joe Sample was the headliner for the first night along with the Errol Bradshaw Jazz Project at the Sunbury Plantation House in St. Philip. The following day showcased local musicians Adrian “Boo” Husbands and Michael Cheeseman at the Heritage Park/The Rum Factory in St. Philip.

Overall, the Barbados Jazz Festival isn’t really about jazz for the most part. But who cares when you can wear shorts and sandals, eat great food and not have to worry about digging your car out of snow in January.

Originally Published