Leaving the blizzard-bound East Coast to attend the 11th Annual Barbados Jazz Festival, seven days of sunshine and seven star-studded nights of cool jazz, is what I call a plum assignment. Add to that the pleasures of meeting and hanging out with jazz journalists and photographers from around the globe and you have the makings of an unforgettable travel experience. As detailed in my I’d Rather Be in Barbados journal, daytime excursions, ranging from a jeep safari to a blissful catamaran cruise along the coast, provided an excellent overview of what this charming island has to offer. With a jazz concert held in a different venue each evening, the jazz festival’s music smorgasbord was equally impressive.
Monday night’s concert was held on the grounds of the Sunbury Plantation House, an atmospheric site steeped in history. The great house was floodlit by dramatic blue spotlights, which cast a romantic glow onto the surrounding palm trees and lush tropical foliage, while behind the mansion, vast reception tents and seating in folding chairs accommodated the throngs of festival guests. As the jazz festival is a highlight of the Bajan social season, the crowd on opening night seemed as intent on schmoozing in the catering tents and meeting and greeting as they were on listening to a trio headed by jazz pianist Joe Sample and the Erroll Bradshaw Jazz Project. Still, Sample’s humorous reminiscences of a promised collaboration with jazz megastar George Benson drew appreciative laughter. Even the snarl of BMW’s and Benzes making an exodus after the concert didn’t dampen the spirits of islanders and visitors clearly intent on having a good time.
The hometown crowd turned out en masse for Tuesday night’s concert at The Rum Factory in Heritage Park. Again, the outdoor setting was festive, with the facade of the converted four-square Rum Refinery cast in a dramatic green floodlights. Having learned my lesson the previous evening, I sat closer to the stage and further away from the party-hardy set, and this made all the difference in my enjoyment of what turned out to be a rousing concert featuring Adrian ‘Boo’ Husbands and Michael Cheeseman.
Husbands and his friends, clearly delighted to be playing before an international audience, gave it their all in a rollicking performance that showcased Husbands’ proficiency in such varied instruments as the flute, recorder, trombone, and (I kid you not) a conch shell. Yes, this was definitely a concert with an infectious Caribbean twist, as Husbands, along with keyboardist Miles Robertson, talented vocalists Colleen Brewster and Tamara Washington, assorted congo players, guitarists, and a drummer nick-named "The Cookie Monster," delivered kick-ass renditions of such standards as Summertime, Ain’t No Sunshine (When She’s Gone), and A Few of My Favorite Things, the latter a scat-inspired litany of Bajan delights.
Cheeseman’s smooth set seemed almost dour in comparison; I have to say, though, to his credit, he delivered a more jazz-oriented set. But both Cheeseman and Husbands were born and raised on Barbados, and the supportiveness of the clearly partisan audience was as much an indicator of the future of jazz on the island as the depth of talent on display.
Wednesday night brought out the big guns of the festival, Herbie Hancock, along with bassist Scott College, saxophonist Ron Thomas, and drummer Teri Lyne Carrington. Hancock was perhaps the only artist delivering what hardcore jazz fans were grousing was missing from the line-up-straight-up, undiluted jazz. Unfortunately, the venue for this concert, set on a hillside behind the Sherborne Conference Center, was less than ideal. For one thing, the audience sat downhill from the stage, making the sight lines from the rear problematic. Another member of the press group and I, after waiting fruitlessly to find out if the designated press seating was available, ended up perched uncomfortably on stone steps far from the stage. When our backsides grew numb, we roamed along the side of the crowd, where the antics of the champagne-fueled social set nearly drowned out the music. Needless to say, we weren’t able to concentrate on-or even see-Hancock’s performance.
Liz Wright, who opened for Hancock, also suffered from the venue; her soaring but intimate vocals were more suited to a small club, and in fact, I resolved to hear her again if ever she comes to a local venue. Still, this concert got the thumbs-up vote from the jazz journalists who squeezed their way down to the jam-packed area in front of the stage. "Herbie was in fine form tonight!" was the general consensus.
Speaking of the press group, we were treated to a wonderful cocktail reception hosted by the Barbados Tourism Authority on Thursday night. Many of the Bajan musicians who had performed with Adrian ‘Boo’ Husbands on Tuesday were on hand, with the addition of multi-talented jazz artist Nicholas Brancker, vocalist T.C. Coward (the self-proclaimed Party Girl of Barbados), and several local steel-pan players. This showcase of local talent was not wasted on the appreciative audience-nor was the delicious Bajan cuisine. The Party Girl shimmied and flashed mega-watt smiles, Brancker and his band delivered feel-good Caribbean-infused jazz, and the island itself provided caressing breezes. What a night!
The sole indoor concert, in Sir Garfield Sobers Gymnasium, was Friday night’s performance featuring tenor sax player Kirk Whalum and pop-artist India Arie. I have to say, again, that this was not the best of venues; the cavernous gymnasium suffered in comparison to the charming outdoor venues, and the acoustics were problematic.
Early into Whalum’s opening set, the sound went out for nearly 10 minutes. The ever-obliging Whalum didn’t let this damp his style; in fact, the outage provided one of the evening’s highlights as Whalum took his sax, and considerable sex appeal, down into the audience, serenading swooning ladies and leading a call-and-response gospel-style jazz revival. Later, a long religious soliloquy left me cold; it was patently easy to rev this church-going crowd by invoking "Jesus."
India Arie continued to mine that vein of local religious sentiment in her set, which featured a memorable duet with her mother. The crowd had clearly come to hear her chart-topping hits such as Interested and Brown Skin, and Arie obliged, with her performance lasting nearly 100 minutes. While there were a few awkward moments on stage involving wardrobe mishaps (though not the X-rated kind), forgotten song lyrics, and equipment adjustment, the crowd remained in adulatory mode, clapping and singing along with their favorite songs.
The one experience I missed out on, regrettably, was the post-show jazz scene in lively St. Lawrence Gap. Since I was staying, along with many other press group members, at Almond Beach Resort in the northwestern part of Barbados, getting to the southern tip of the island after the concerts was problematic. The press-group bus, chauffeured by a preternaturally patient driver we dubbed "St. Rick," took us back to the hotel, which was usually about an hour’s drive from most of the concert sites. Usually it was well after 11pm by the time we returned. Ain’t it hell when the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak? A nightcap at the bar and the beckoning soft bed won out every time.