McBride, Porter, Reeves and Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra for swinging St. Lucia Jazz Fest

Although it is a respected cultural event throughout the Caribbean and the Americas in general, the St. Lucia Jazz Festival gained additional kudos this year through a partnership with Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra. While the latter’s avowed role as keeper of the swing-based flame was reflected in some of the programming the pleasingly eclectic week-long offering of music struck a good balance between local and international acts, and acoustic and electric bands. Moreover, the choice of indoor venues is marginally better than in previous years, where some of the hotel ballrooms, so crucial in the history of music in the West Indies, were marred by a soulless atmosphere and poor sound engineering. This year the Ramp in the lively Rodney Bay area and Gros Islet Park are a step up; they have a good layout and sightlines.

Topping the bill were Gregory Porter (pictured above) and Dianne Reeves, two stars with international reps that ensure ticket sales are anything but slow, and the buzz before and after their respective appearances was loud. Yet the real talk of the town turns out to be The Baylor Project, the husband and wife duo of drummer Marcus and singer Jean Baylor. Performing material featured on their Grammy nominated album, The Journey, they are the highlight of a ‘gospel brunch’ at the open air Shangri-La venue, where there is also a strong showing from St. Lucian ensemble Shirley-Ann Cyril-Mayers’ God’s Anointed Ministry. Black church traditions are the order of the day, but the Baylors pull off the considerable feat of capturing the essence of praise songs while avoiding clichés. First and foremost, they draw on a finely shaded palette of modern jazz, as embodied by the likes of Herbie Hancock among others, to bring to the table a flickering subtlety that offsets the rousing energy of spirituals.

There is a misty quality to the combination of Baylor’s voice and Freddie Hendrix’s flugelhorn, whose velvety legatos float around her fluttered phrases, which are well supported by double bassist Rich Goods and pianist Terry Brewer. A daringly re-harmonized ‘Afro-Blue’, complete with strong Afro-centric adlibs from Jean, is masterful. The ensemble pushes the Latin pulse towards an ethereal grace, heard elsewhere in a set which has memorable surprise turns. From Marcus’ discreet use of timpani sticks to saxophonist Keith Loftis’ quotes of 'A Love Supreme', which are finely woven into an arrangement that starts life far away from Coltrane’s timeless monument. A superb gig from artists who warrant a higher profile.

The same can also be said of Somi, who mesmerizes a capacity crowd with a performance that bridges her African-American and African heritages quite seamlessly. Drawing largely from her latest album, Petite Afrique, which places a spotlight on African migration in Harlem, she addresses pressing issues such as the legal and social status of ‘aliens’ as well as gentrification. Somi’s contralto soars powerfully on melodies framed by a spectrum of vivid harmonies by Senegalese guitarist Hervé Samb, whose electro-acoustic sound caresses and energises elaborate arrangements.

Christian McBride St Lucia

On excellent form too is bassist Christian McBride (above), who leads his Inside Straight quintet in a set of mostly original material whose post-bop leanings are marked by the strong personalities who back him, none more so than vibraphonist Warren Wolf. Vocalist Ledisi guests briefly, and she is something of a wandering spirit throughout the festival, sharing the stage with Gregory Porter and headlining her own 'Nina And Me' project, a tribute to Ms Simone that crackles with vitality as a result of the singer’s spirited delivery and the percolating rhythm and brass of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. After starting perhaps with a touch too fire and fury Ledisi settles into a poised delivery that sees her do more than justice to the mix of blues, gospel, jazz, classical and political lyrics of the woman who remains a pivotal model for any generation that cares to see beyond their iPhone screens. Finally. Trinidadian trumpeter, composer and percussionist Etienne Charles’ gig, where his fine band Creole Soul presents an excellent synthesis of Anglophone and francophone Caribbean musical culture, has an intricate yet danceable rhythmic momentum and swooning, often heraldic themes. It is the best possible ad for the African Diaspora.

– Kevin Le Gendre

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