Live Report: Jamaica Jazz & Blues Festival 2014

Jazz goes heavy on the reggae…

Jamaica may be synonymous with reggae, but the island’s biggest music event in terms of its economic impact and benefit to the tourism industry is not a reggae show, but an annual three-night fete known as the Jamaica Jazz & Blues Festival.

The crowd (including many well-to-do Jamaicans returning home on holiday) tends to be older and better dressed than your average reggae audience, and the vendors – selling helicopter rides and oil paintings as well as clothing, crafts, and vegan cuisine – are notably more upscale. Although the musical offerings are wildly diverse, in accordance with local tastes, the average Jamaican refers to the event simply as “Jazz”, as in, “You goin’ to Jazz?" And you can trust and believe that pretty much everybody wants to go to Jazz.

But don’t get it twisted. This ain’t Montreux – think Kenny G rather than Coltrane. “A little bit of jazz, a little bit of blues, and whole lot of everything else,” is how Walter Ellmore, the festival’s producer for several years, describes the musical mix, which has ranged over the years from the melodramatic ballads of Celine Dion to the country classics of Kenny Rogers to the over-the-top pop of Air Supply.

This unlikely blend of sounds has proved an irresistible draw for affluent Jamaican audiences who not only snap up all available tickets to Jazz, but think nothing of purchasing skyboxes and VIP passes so they and their friends can get dressed up, enjoy some tasty canapés, and network while re-affirming their sense of social status. All while enjoying some remarkable musical performances.

When you think of Jazz & Blues you think of soul, sultry and smooth, and thanks to the Friday night headliner, Toni Braxton, this year’s festival is all that and then some. If you’re more into roots ’n’ culture then the line-up for the first night was right up your alley, with an unusually generous serving of reggae – from classic names to the hottest, most-relevant culture artists gracing the stage.

Reggae’s greatest female vocalist, Marcia Griffiths, took Thursday evening in true style, not only by singing her unbelievably extensive catalogue, which included everything from Bob Marley’s ‘Could You Be Loved’ to her own ‘Electric Slide’, but also with her wardrobe. The reggae queen was swagged-out every night with different, unique outfits, including a Bob Marley maxi dress that she was spotted wearing while hanging out the day after her set.

Thursday night also featured reggae’s man of the moment, Chronixx, and the Zinc Fence Redemption band, fresh off a guest spot alongside Monty Alexander and Ernest Ranglin at New York’s prestigious jazz club, The Blue Note. They brought recent hits like ‘Smile Jamaica’ and ‘Behind Curtain’ to the stage in what will surely be their first of many Jazz & Blues appearances to come.

On the love front, Christopher Martin came through in fine style. His recent work has had Jamaican music lovers in a frenzy, so it was no surprise when men and women alike knew all the words to songs like ‘Cheaters Prayer’ and ‘Chill Spot’. The veteran reggae band Chalice got the whole place moving to classic cuts like ‘Good To Be There’.

But the highlight of the first night had to be the King of the Dancehall, Beenie Man, who performed a very special Jazz & Blues set under his ‘government name’, Moses Davis. The dancehall star not only turned in a completely clean set – in terms of 100% expletive-free lyrical content – but he also sported a clean look, with Beenie and his entire band (including horn and string sections) turning up in bow ties and tuxes. Mr Davis stormed through jazzed-up versions of familiar tracks like ‘Sim Simma’ and ‘Nuff Gal’ and proved that his brand of ghetto music could stand alongside the greatest artists in the world.

The reggae continued on Friday night as the young roots artist Protoje – who’s getting ready to drop a new album this year – took the stage with his Indiggnation band, seeming humble as always yet quietly confident. Backstage he shared some exclusive info, letting out the fact that his new album will not continue in the numerical sequence of his past projects, ‘The Seven Year Itch’ and ‘The Eight Year Affair’, but will include a collaboration with Chronixx.

This year’s guilty pleasure power pop was provided by Toto – the profoundly white American rock band behind the early 1980s hit ‘Africa’. Other surprise picks included Najee’s unique blend of gospel-tinged jazz and the country crooning of Crystal Gayle. Making her first trip to Jamaica, Gayle said she was shocked at how well the local audience knew her music. She even expressed an interest in doing a country version of Bob Marley’s ‘I Shot the Sherriff. R&B legends like The O’Jays and Chaka Khan are a welcome addition to any music festival – ditto the tender Bayou funk of Aaron Neville. And Friday night’s headliners, ‘90s R&B stars Joe and Toni Braxton, rounded out the festival’s always eclectic line-up.

The night was on fire when Joe stepped on stage. The crowd sang along word-for-word as the mild-mannered soul man served up a full hour of hits including ‘Don’t Wanna Be A Player No More’. The ladies in the house went crazy as he flung his body around the stage, slowly peeling off his elegant outfit piece by piece – first the jacket, then the bow tie – until all that was left was a wife beater. And as a special treat he sang a flawless rendition of Gregory Isaacs’ ‘Night Nurse’, then pulled out his guitar to pay tribute to Bob Marley with ‘Redemption Song’. It’s nice to know that the international acts understand and respect where they are performing.

Joe soon made way for Braxton, who brought some edginess to the stage. Her glam outfits were ultra-sexy, her set a combination of audience participation, soulful R&B and even a touch of gangsta rap. Bottom line, Toni was doing whatever the hell she wanted, and she clearly had fun doing it. When she wasn’t delivering classics like ‘Making Me High’, ‘Breathe Again’ and ‘Another Sad Love Song’, Toni sought a connection with the audience, sitting on the edge of the stage and asking for requests.

The energy changed considerably when she brought a couple up on stage who were celebrating their anniversary. While singing “happy anniversary to ya,” Toni began playfully grinding the guy from behind while he tried to romance his wife. After that it was on and popping – Miss Braxton was wilding out for the night! Bringing a series of men to the stage – whether one-on-one or sandwiched between two guys – she didn’t miss an opportunity to make sure that their wives and girlfriends were catching all the action. The rest of the audience loved it – mainly because they knew good and well that the guy on stage had better be on his best behaviour or he was about to get cussed out the moment he returned to his date!

At one point Toni asked the crowd, “Is it legal to have same sex marriages here yet?” The Jamaican audience gave her a predictably definitive answer: “NOOOOOOOO!” But Toni just kept on going, backed by three of her sisters from the popular reality show, Braxton Family Values. Her sisters even debuted a new song of their own, although whether they should give up their day jobs at this point remains a matter of personal opinion.

Soon enough Toni reclaimed the stage to deliver a cover of the Isley Brothers’ ‘Between The Sheets’, along with what she called “a touch of Brooklyn”. This started out every bit as sweet and smooth as her previous songs but then suddenly she switched into rap mode, delivering The Notorious B.I.G.’s entire first verse from ‘Big Poppa’ – even the part about “you got a gun up in your waist, please don’t shoot up the place”. Toni's sisters providing the backup on the chorus: “She loves it when you call her Big Poppa”. There’s no telling why she didn’t switch her lyrics to the female point-of-view for lines like “I see some ladies tonight who should be havin’ my baby… baby,” but that’s just how Toni does it. The audience may have been a bit baffled but they were also thoroughly entertained. Whether it was her final message or just a coincidence of running order, she ended her set with ‘Unbreak My Heart’, a track that hits hard whether you are a boy or a girl.

On the final night of the festival Chaka Khan entered the stage on a high note with ‘I Feel For You’ and ran through her stellar catalogue, reminding everyone why they have been grooving to her music for all these years. There were no frills with the Chicago singer, who rocked the stage wearing blue jeans and a simple top with no outfit changes. Her set was all about quality music as she hit every note to perfection and churned out the classics with no breathing space, until she dropped a bomb for the ladies with ‘I’m Every Woman’.

Speaking of every woman, the headliner for Jazz & Blues’ final night had all the ladies in the palm of his hand. Beres Hammond, aka “the chairman of the board”, kept the crowd on its feet all night long despite intermittent bouts of rain. Beres is, after all, the premier soul man in Jamaica, and his latest album, ‘One Love, One Life’, was nominated for a Grammy last year.

If you’ve ever been to a Hammond show then you know it’s all about joy and pain, sunshine and rain, with tears and laughter in equal measure. From ‘Tempted To Touch’ to ‘What One Dance Can Do’, Beres served a true testament to his talent as he toyed with the exuberant crowd, playfully ordering them to “hush” on more than one occasion.

Just when it seemed like things couldn’t get any more emotional or exhilarating, out came Tony Rebel to perform ‘Fresh Vegetable’ on the ‘Love I Can Feel’ riddim. This special link-up between two Penthouse Records sparring partners had everybody feeling the vibes. “Even though it's taken this long to invite me here,” Beres teased the festival organisers near the end, “I forgive you.” Chances are he will be back again. Just like this festival, Beres is a class act through and through, and his performance showed once and for all that there’s no better way to ‘Feel Good’ than to be “wrapped up in your arms dancing to a reggae song” – even when the sign on the stage says Jazz.

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Words: Reshma B (online / Twitter)

Catch up with Reshma’s Reggae & Dancehall columns on Clash

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