Sean’s Jazz

A review of the inaugural Trinidad and Tobago Jazz Festival
By Mark Lyndersay
Originally published in the Trinidad Guardian on Friday March 19, 2010.

Ravi B, Chutney Soca Monarch, performs his hit song "Ah Drinka" with Mikhail Salcedo, pannist, of Sean Thomas' Chutney Jazz Ensemble at the Trinidad and Tobago Jazz Festival at the UWI Greens on Saturday night. Photography by Mark Lyndersay.

Let’s get the formalities out of the way. The Trinidad and Tobago Jazz Festival is an initiative of the Jazz Alliance of Trinidad and Tobago. Now let’s get real. This is Sean Thomas’ show and his larger than life stage presence is imprinted all over the best parts of this event.
Until last year, Thomas was the musical director of the upcoming Jazz Artists on the Greens until a sharp split this year split the show into two events. It’s hard to see this as anything but upside, but the T&T Jazz festival, pitched on the same greens that will accommodate JAOTG didn’t attract the audiences that Thomas must have been hoping for.

My show began with the University Faculty Jazztet, a competent group who played some original compositions and some standards with moderate flair but little fire. All the right notes were hit, but few sparked in a set that was enthusiastically played but remained curiously uninteresting.
The Chutney-Jazz Ensemble wasn’t so much led by Sean Thomas as it was commanded. His powerful drumming led off the songs, dominated the jams and segued into dramatic percussion solos. It’s worth noting here that in person, Thomas is painfully polite and deferent, but onstage he is remorseless and unforgiving. The outstanding performers in the Chutney-Jazz Ensemble’s set were those with the gumption to stake their place. There was to be no waiting for a solo here.

Stepping up to claim their space onstage were Mikhail Salcedo, whose sharp tenor pan runs sliced through the jams and Janine Xavier’s silky electric violin playing, which provided a soothing foil to Thomas’s rattling drum riffs.
Sean Thomas put together this ensemble to explore his theme for the festival, an exploration of popular soca and chutney music rethought from a jazzman’s point of view.
The experiment was by turns exhilarating, surprising and ultimately disappointing.

Backing guests Rikki Jai and Ravi B, what the audience got was the band performing its interpretation of their popular hits ‘Barman’ and ‘Ah Drinka,’ respectively while the singers performed their songs. Except for some token jazzy flourishes, most from the more experienced Rikki Jai, these were two performances on parallel paths, the music weaving its jam behind the singers and the singers finding the melody to deliver their lyrics, but the two never seemed to meet meaningfully at any point.

Palance was the number that Thomas was most excited by during the night, performing it twice, once with the Chutney-Jazz Ensemble and again in a jam with the musicians present featuring its author, the robustly capable drummer Kernal Roberts on the kit. But the song, stripped of its catchy lyric fragments and rendered down to its musical phrasing was almost unrecognisable, a piece of music that felt unfinished, almost dadaist in its insistence on following a vaguely thumping beat.

Providing a real counterpoint to the hard attack of the Chutney-Jazz Band was the devilishly mellow pairing of pannist Ray Holman and guitarist Gene Lawrence. It was a strong return to performance in Trinidad and Tobago for Lawrence, who has lived and performed in St Lucia for the last 18 years.
Much of the set was pretty much exactly what you’d expect from two artists whose personal performance styles trend toward smooth, MOR jazz stylings.

Lawrence stepped back to allow Holman to do some sharper roaming of his pans on his composition Bazodee, but the treat of their set was a rethinking of the theme from the Godfather, set to what Lawrence described as the Saidi beat which he played with haunting grace on a guitar set to synthesise the sounds of a sitar.
As far from any of the performers who took the stage as can be imagined, Grace Kelly is, despite her old-school movie star name, a tiny Asian-American girl who looks like she should be cradling a PowderPuff Girls handbag, not a saxophone.

Just 17, mini-skirted and wearing sneaker style booties with lifts, she eliminated any doubts with her opening number, shredding solos on Bill Withers’ ‘Ain't no sunshine’ like she’d been possessed by Coltrane.
Kelly’s embarrassment of riches continued with a credible jazz scat vocal on ‘Straighten up and to the right’ and she soon relaxed into her set, allowing her band, keyboardist Doug Johnson and bassist Evan Gregory and an appropriately restrained Sean Thomas on drums to stretch out behind her leads.

It wouldn’t be until Kelly’s closing number, an extended jam on ‘Brazil’ that Thomas would jump forward again and give the young singer/saxophonist and the audience a reminder of just how enthusiastic a drummer he is in performance.
The inaugural Trinidad and Tobago Jazz Festival was a surprisingly mature effort that needs some more separation from Jazz Artists on the Greens, more sponsorship and promotion to really start creating an identity capable of drawing more fulsome audiences.

The Saturday night show was the weekend long event’s big night, but the smaller Jazz Alliance events often deliver their own delights, and jazz enthusiasts will find much to enjoy in the continued efforts of this production company.
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