Finding the jazz in kaiso

Published in the Sunday Arts Magazine of the Sunday Guardian on March 02, 2014.
R’Kardo St’Von performs at the Little Carib Theatre during the Tribute to the Masters show. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay.

The playbill described it as A Tribute to the Masters - A Kaisojazz Experience, but it was really a tentative exploration of some delightful kaiso classics as R’Kardo St’Von, backed by an experienced band, offered some gentle twists on legacy calypsoes.

The music, largely culled from the era of the singer’s youth, offered fertile ground for such musical reinterpretation, though some songs proved more successful than others.

St’Von, a capable and often colourful song stylist proved to be a generous leader of his team of musicians, giving them room to contribute creatively to the proceedings, but the show had the feel of a project that was under-rehearsed and under-arranged, the sparkling moments of inspiration in the performance contrasting sharply with straighter readings that seemed perfunctory.

The evening began with a deep dive into the treasury of calypso with a gentle lavway on Roaring Lion’s J’Ouvert Barrio, which offered the first dazzling moment of the evening for pannist Dane Gulston.
St’Von began singing along with Gulston offstage, finally backing onto the stage as the song wound to a relaxed conclusion.

Next up was David Rudder’s The Long Time Band, the first of the composer’s songs to be performed and the best known among the selections.
This was saxophonist Tony Woodroofe’s song, his long feathery solos fluttering around the edges of the melody.

Blakie’s Arabian Festival was the song that engaged St’Von most effectively in the entire show, and he had enormous fun with the lyric, the challenge of the tongue twisting intricacies of the song putting a broad and heartfelt smile on his face.

For Shadow’s Soca Boat, the singer fell into the trap that so many do when covering Shadow’s music, adopting the calypsonian’s tall, stiff stance and direct and declarative vocal style. The potential of this song was best exlored in the solos, which danced around Rodney Alexander’s insistent bassline.
Relator’s Steelband Music rose to another level during the call and response scatting and pan runs between St’Von and Dane Gulston.

Yet the moments of inventiveness and passion of the first half of the show didn’t carry over completely into the second half, which would prove to be a more loving and respectful engagement with the songbooks of St’Von’s favorite calypsonians.

His covers of David Rudder’s There is a land and The Hurricane emphasised percussion, but the singer felt cautious in his approach to the works, though when it came to his Sparrow medley, he rallied strongly.

Marvin Dolly’s gently strummed calypso guitar stripped the normally brassy Maria back down to the plaintive plea that’s at the heart of the song’s lyrics, stripping it of Sparrow’s bravado. St’Von’s reading of Sa Sa Ay seized on a romantic delivery of its French chorus, while the singer worked hard to rephrase the vaguely rapey lyrics of the song into a romantic adventure.

Kitchener’s Pan in A Minor was turned entirely over to Dane Gulston who delivered a merry romp on the tenor pan with the song, twisting and swerving with verve and enthusiasm around the classic melody.
St’Von returned for a warm rendition of Flagwoman, jazzing it up Al Jarreau style, before offering an exuberant and saucily appreciative reading of the heady raunch of Kitchener’s Battimamzelle.

Oddly enough, he would end the show with almost straight readings of Black Stalin’s Caribbean Man and Black man feeling to party, two songs that despite the perfection of their Errol Ince arrangements seemed ripe for some considered and dramatic reinterpretation.
For an audience seeking breezy and confident interpretations of classic calypso in a smooth jazz style, Tribute to the Masters would have been an amazing evening with kaiso classics.

Unfortunately, the event didn’t draw much of a crowd on opening night and most of the Little Carib Theatre’s seats remained unwarmed.
For those who came, the show satisfied, but also cried out for a bit more rehearsal and more of the inventive arrangements that popped up occasionally, a hint of the creative power seemed leashed by the urbane cool of the show’s mood.

R’Kardo St’Von, lead vocals
Michael Low Chew Tung, keyboards
Marvin Dolly, guitar
Rodney Alexander, bass
Modupe Folasade Onilu, percussion
Anthony Woodroffe, saxophone
Dane Gulston, pan
Charli Griffith, Kelli Nova and Shaun-Mark Murray, backup vocals
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