There is something about “that” jazz and Saint Lucia figured it out.
Not highly knowledgeable on the genre, I was a bit hesitant when called upon to go to Saint Lucia to cover its annual Saint Lucia Jazz Festival. How would I do it justice, I thought? After all, I had only become familiar with the brand and appreciated its smooth and soothing delivery after my Barbadian grandmother would fill the house on an early Saturday morning with the voices of Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Charles Mingus, and Herbie Hancock, while she mopped the floors. But to speak of it proficiently, I was not qualified.
To further compound my insecurities, here it was being said that the Saint Lucia Jazz Festival was “returning to its roots”. Whatever did that mean? I had never been to its festival before, so exactly what would I be comparing it to?
The first night came and I was aboard The Pearl—one of Saint Lucia’s premiere cruise vessels. It was the first time a cruise had been incorporated into the event, thanks to the collaboration with Jazz at the Lincoln Centre, New York, which teamed up with Saint Lucia Jazz for the first time, to produce and programme the festival. The first performers were Robert Zii and Phyness, a husband and wife duo who were not that very “jazzy”, as their style was more contemporary and a blend of R&B, neo-soul, reggae, and bop. I thought to myself this was perfect and not as challenging as I thought it would be. Even when Jamaican-born jazz-bassist Russell Hall put on a “monsterfari” of a show with fellow musicians, I felt I could still handle it, except for that part when he did several renditions of the late Duke Ellington’s jazz compositions, as a tribute to the American jazz genius. In my notes I scribbled, “google Duke Ellington”.
Then came night two at The Ramp on Rodney Bay, I reckoned it might have been a rather “important” night, as there was a big fuss about the main act—Gregory Porter. You can bet your bottom dollar, I did not know him either.
Inside the spacious and well-embellished tent, I secured a seat closest to the front row next to seemingly jazz enthusiasts. If I was going to write about this with any form of accuracy, I figured these folks would be the best people to acquaint myself—they might teach me a thing or two.
The language of jazz
I would soon find out with the indescribable performance of jazz vocalist Laura Kabasomi “Somi” Kakoma, that no one could really prepare anyone for the “language” of jazz—I had to absorb it all, internalise it and then, only then could I really creatively express it.
Her “vocal athletics” were not normal. There is no real key or note to keep, but mind you, every sound that comes out is sweet.
I realised jazz wasn’t just about a voice or the saxophone, trumpet or piano, but it was an amalgamation of feeling. The instruments speak to each other and the vocalist gives birth to that merger.
It easily affects mood, and I’d like to think of the New Orleans native genre as an aphrodisiac at times—yes, it is also the music of love.
By the time Porter took to the stage, though I was still a “rookie”, I was tapping my feet, snapping my fingers and shouting, “Yeah, sing Gregory!” The fear of not knowing was gone and the feeling was now one of eagerness to know more about this belly stirring, mind captivating music.
I would have to wait though for day three, where I was the student of yet another lesson. This time the conversation was more familiar as the act that night—Saint Lucia’s acclaimed jazz musician Ronald “Boo” Hinkson brought me back to my homeland, jazzing up Kees Diffenthaller’s Savannah Grass and delivering a number of other calypso and soca renditions born out of the belly of T&T. I suppose his selections were fitting for the hosting of a jazz festival in the Caribbean.
At the same time, he was not shy about telling the Saint Lucian people to preserve their own music since this was the only way to pass it on to the next generation.
I felt proud when he returned his focus to T&T, happily paying tribute to our very own Slinger “The Mighty Sparrow” Francisco, saying “Honour must go to even great singers and musicians like Francisco for the great music they made and contributed.”
On his guitar, he then delivered Francisco’s Jane, saying, “I’m playing this one for my Trini posse.”
That night, I also “liked myself” when Barbadian jazz and reggae saxophonist Arturo Tappin came out on stage to “spice” things up a little. From the sound of it, the audience was “liking itself” too.
Needless to say, I was anticipating day four, which came quicker than saying the word itself. Moreso, because tonight I was hitting two venues— trying to catch five-time Grammy-Award winner Dianne Reeves at The Ramp on Rodney Bay again and American jazz bassist, Christian McBride at Gros Islet. But before I could “take them in”, I had to recover from Ledisi. Born Ledisi Anibade Young, this girl from New Orleans has a voice that literally blows one away. She can safely take the award for “scat queen” if such existed. I won’t choose to describe it as a “Ferrari of a voice”, as was the description used by Porter, two nights before when she accompanied him on vocals. I just think it’s unutterable. It would be interesting to see a collaboration between her and Somi.
Getting acquainted with Reeves was easy; she’s like the “headmaster” of jazz. Throughout her performance, I felt like I was in a classroom learning from the greatest teacher in her field. There is something so nurturing about how she sings and even how she engages her audience and I could not help but tie my emotions with her when she became impassioned singing a tribute song to her mother who is now passed. As much as I yearned for more of her “warmth”, I had to pull myself away to get to the next stop.
Toward the end of the evening and my coverage of Saint Lucia Jazz Festival, I had a new-found appreciation for jazz. I may still be a student, but I can boast now that I’m definitely no longer a rookie. Thank you, Saint Lucia, for taking it back to “your roots”.