Having had launched 15 years ago as a meagerly attended event, Barbados Jazz Festival has grown in scope and popularity to now encompass a full week of music. But don’t let the word “jazz” fool you. Despite the Festival boasting an emphasis on “true jazz” for its 15th year celebration, some of the fare, including its best-known international headliner Erykah Badu, were a far cry from traditional jazz.
What the Festival focused on was showcasing the island’s own artists. While that should be commended, several competing Caribbean Island jazz fests feature little-to-no local talent much of the Bajan offerings were mired in bad covers and pedestrian background music. Steel pan aficionado André Forde’s show at the open air Heritage Park/Rum Factory set the tone for much of what was to come from Bajan groups. Forde was clearly adept and charming, but many of his original compositions bordered on wedding band fare, with calypso touches and less jazz undertones. His playful interpretation of Dizzee Gillespie’s “Night of Tunisia” and his own “Soul Cane 7” were the only exceptions. Keyboardist Stefan Walcott joined Forde for his set, and later Forde backed Walcott who was the headliner. Walcott’s set had more bounce, backed by a seven-piece crew including a horn section and several percussionists. The slow-burning jam of Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” and the epic and hopping four-movement suite entitled “State Liquor,” which ended in a Sun-Ra styled freakout, added improvisational spice to an otherwise sleepy evening. If only it ended there. Two Bajan female singers joined the band for a creepy cover of John Coltrane’s “Afro Blue” and a horrendous take on one of Marvin Gaye’s finest songs, “What’s Going On?,” turning it into a Disney-fied celebratory song.
This was indicative of the majority of acts throughout the week. The Almond Band featured Bajan vocalists Barry Chandler and female crooner Kitorah, both of whom, despite having chops, sang no original material - making it feel much like an American Idol show. Straight readings of songs such as Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” may have been fun for the crowd, but did little to demonstrate artistry. R&B group Nexcyx, who were joined by Forde on drums, covered everything from Evanescence to Rihanna, and again while the audience enjoyed singing along to the group’s verbatim readings, it was Nexcyx’s sole original number, which shone.
The Bajans were not the only musicians guilty of extensive covers or tired sets. The American Rippingtons rendition of Santana’s “Smooth” and its exhaustive smooth jazz set was proof that elevator music need not be witnessed live.
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