Where is the jazz?

Jazz Artists on the Greens 2010
Review by Mark Lyndersay
Originally published in the Trinidad Guardian on March 26, 2010

Nick "Brownman" Ali, the star performer of the night, solos with Canadian fusion band Kalabash at the eighth Jazz on the Greens concert at the UWI Greens on Saturday night. Photography by Mark Lyndersay.

For years, the concert series Jazz Artists on the Greens has been the stubborn holdout on the Caribbean ‘jazz’ circuit, a collection of shows featuring R&B artists masquerading as jazz.
For no reason that I can adequately understand, this year’s JAOTG seemed to collapse like an indifferent flan, with a mix of soul, song styling and blasé playing that catered well to an appreciative crowd but kicked jazz aficionados in their soft and tenders.

It was pretty clear that things are setting off on the wrong foot when two of the performers told the audience that they aren’t jazz artists.
The first to do so was Jason Baptiste, who led his band Afrolypso through a seventies flavoured groove that threw me back to the beats of Osibisa and Cyamande. Mixing funky, bass and drum riffs with folk flavoured percussion and soulful wailings; the band was a delightful anachronism from their tie-dyed t-shirts to their angry black poets rapping.

R’Kardo St’Von was the first singer to be backed by the JAOTG All Star Band, an ensemble featuring Richie Joseph on drums, Dean Williams on guitar, Russel Durity on bass, Ming Low Chew Tung on keyboards, Modipe Onilu on percussion and a number of soloists guesting throughout the night.
Those soloists included Tony Woodroffe on saxophone and the performer who proved to be the redeeming grace of the evening, Nick ‘Brownman’ Ali, who was all about the searing bursts of trumpet glory under the spotlight and the evening’s only reminder that jazz is really a collection of acts of intellectual musical ego set to a melody.

I thought of that and scribbled it down while R’Kardo St’Von was dueting with Charlene and Kelly Ann Griffith, the soulful and undeniably hot duo known as 2Ntrigue on that old Flack/Hathaway number, ‘Where is the love,’ but I kept mishearing ‘jazz’ for ‘love.’
St’Von’s a great song stylist, finding intriguing shadings in his lyrics, but he needs a good instrumentalist to urge him on and he found that on his composition ‘I do believe,’ a duet with guitarist Dean Williams and with Brownman on ‘Your song.’

More song stylings were provided by Brenda Butler, who proved less adventurous in her approach than St’Von, and despite creditable outings on Randy Crawford’s ‘One day I’ll fly away’ and Nina Simone’s ‘Feeling good,’ set to a reggae lilt, her set seemed to drag along, stumbling to an indifferent conclusion with an irritatingly straight reading of Sting’s ‘It’s probably me.’
The two big jazz imports for the evening were the now traditional presentation from Cuba, the William Roblejo Trio and Canada’s Kalabash, a jazz ensemble billed as a fusion of Caribbean rhythms, the steelband and ‘contemporary jazz expression.’

Kalabash encountered some horrid feedback problems as they started their set, but as a jazz-steelband-fusion ensemble, they have other issues.
The band members can clearly play, but they don’t seem to have figured out how they want to play together.
The kind of deft interplay they’re going after found its zenith in Weather Report and its nadir in Spyrogyra and it’s not entirely clear which direction they are trending toward.

The comfortable politeness the bandmembers display in performance stole much of the potential in their set, which only took off when Brownman offered startling solos on Nothing Personal and Caravan and in their closing minutes, when their drummer offered a riveting display of craft.
The standout band of the evening, the William Roblejo Trio, played a series of compositions on electric bass, guitar and violin. Their sound echoes the work of Jaco Pastorious’ Trio of Doom (sans drums) and John McLaughlin’s Guitar Trio, but evolves well beyond those groupings with Roblejo’s long, melodic lines and swiping phrasings on the violin, the inspired, percussive anchoring of his bassist and his guitarist’s gift for staccato flourishes and flamenco styled expressions.

With their All Star band woefully underutilised, the JAOTG administrators owe a debt of gratitude to Brownman and William Roblejo for allowing them to retain their jazz cred with a show that was agreeably, but indubitably, otherwise a celebration of R&B music.
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