Saint Lucia Jazz: From the crucible to the creole

By Keino Swamber

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St Lucian saxophonist Augustin “Jab” Duplessis thrilled with a display of creole Caribbean jazz.

(NEWSDAY) On Friday, the Saint Lucia Jazz Festival shows featured music that acknowledged jazz music’s past while showcasing modern innovations and fusions that jazz has made as it spreads throughout the Caribbean diaspora.

At the two featured venues – the Ramp on Rodney Bay, oriented in a theatre style for just over 300 patrons, and the Gros Islet Park with cabaret-style seating for about 160 – Jazz at Lincoln Center programmed New Orleans traditional jazz, early Harlem blues and jazz, the eternal presence of St Lucian jazz icon Boo Hinkson, and the creole soul of Etienne Charles.

Hinkson led a band of “friends” who included fellow countryman Emerson Nurse on piano and special guest Arturo Tappin of Barbados on sax and flute through a set – a musical journey, he called it – that dabbled in a wide repertoire of jazz favourites through the ages, including Jobim’s Agua De Beber and Dizzy Gillespie’s Night in Tunisia, culminating with Kes the Band’s Savannah Grass as an encore.

Hinkson said, “Music is all about communication. I was very meticulous about the songs I chose tonight particularly because this festival is in collaboration with Jazz at Lincoln Center, and it gives us more access to artistes who are really doing jazz.

“We understand the audience we would have here today, particularly the international audience,” he said, but he added, “Also, I cannot forget my Caribbean people, and I know what they like.

“It’s always about finding the playlist that will best help you to communicate,” he concluded, “but also afford the musicians an opportunity to function at the highest level.”

Singer Ledisi fronted the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra of young jazz musicians at the top of their game. Their musicianship is an indication to keen ears of the work that local musicians must still do to compete in a global marketplace of discerning listeners.

Ledisi is a vocal technician of the highest order, whose wordless scatting and yodelling are the reasons why Gregory Porter, the night before, said, “This lady has a Cadillac of a voice, a Ferrari of a voice.”

A quick move to the other venue, to catch the end of the performance of Catherine Russell and her tribute to the Harlem sound, made one aware of the span of jazz styles included in the festival programme. The old blues songs of the 1920s were recreated to give life to that hallowed Harlem Renaissance when singers Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters and writers Langston Hughes and Claude McKay ruled.

Coming on the heels of Russell was Trinidadian trumpeter Etienne Charles with his Creole Soul band, which embodies the aesthetic he always alludes to, that we are all creole and the music born in the New World resonates with equal tenor from the Caribbean to North America. His guest Melanie Charles, Haitian-American flautist and singer, performed songs in her native Kwéyòl, including original compositions.

Fellow Haitian-Americans Jonathan Michel on bass and Godwin Louis on alto sax drove this music in the set, which included cuts from Charles’s recent album Carnival: The Sound of a People Vol 1 to points of awe and elation, before he closed with a good old-style Carnival jump-up tribute to Shadow with Dingolay and Bassman.

If this audience that Hinkson spoke about earlier was awed by creole music and Caribbean jazz, there was no indication of resistance to the idea of music that was not ‘real jazz,” as nary a member of the audience left before the performance was over. The span of sounds and traditions in jazz plays counter to an argument being proffered by some here in St Lucia that the festival was for a select crowd that wanted the real thing.

On Saturday, the final night performances were to feature multiple Grammy winners Dianne Reeves and Christian McBride, who venture deep within that tradition of jazz. A concluding statement would be better served at that point, as the festival ended yesterday with a gospel jazz brunch at the Shangri La estate near Rodney Bay.

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