by Dwight Brown
NNPA Entertainment/Travel Writer
The 18th annual Jamaica Jazz & Blues Festival (http://jamaicajazzandblues.com) offered visitors foot-thumping music by world-class musicians at night and sunny, warm beaches by day. Polar Vortex? Not here! This was a “Musical Solar Vortex!”
Opening Night January 30.
Thousands of music fans sojourned to the open-air Trelawny Multipurpose Stadium, near Montego Bay for the first night of the three-day festival. Dressed in their finest leisure attire, locals and vacationers from around the world assembled and mingled ready to enjoy a special event under the moonlight.
The vibe was completely mellow as young Jamaican artist Christopher Martin serenaded the crowd. His tenor voice sounded a bit like Chris Brown’s, as he worked his way through a playlist that included a homage to “The Blues,” which ran the gamut from the old standard “When Something Is Wrong with My Baby” to a spirited rendition of Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing.”
Chronixx and his band Zinc Fence Redemption brought a refreshing brand of funk-rock-pop-roots reggae to the stage. Bopping around in front of an appreciative audience, he looked like a very tall Mos Def, with dreads. Between songs he talked about his Rasta heritage in a peace-love mantra that harkened back to the ‘60s. His rhythmic grooves (“Smile Jamaica”) where interspersed with slow jams (“They Don’ Know”) that would make John legend envious.
Jamaican musical legend, Marcia Griffiths, who was in Bob Marley’s backup singing group “I Threes,” with Rita Marley and Judy Mowatt, stole the evening and perhaps the festival. Resplendent in a vertical, zebra-striped, form-fitting dress she sang her hits from the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and ‘90s. The audience went wild when she did “Electric Boogie;” fans lined up and did the electric slide like they were at their daughter’s wedding. Griffiths left the stage and returned in a lemon-yellow gown, as she sang duets with former musical partners and ended her set with Marley classics, along with Judy Mowatt: “Exodus,” “Get Up Stand Up,” and a quick-tempo, thumping bass cover of “Could You Be Loved.” Aretha is the “Queen of Soul”. Celia Cruz the “Queen of Salsa.” And, Griffiths is the “Mother of Reggae.”
Friday Night January 31.
Smooth jazz artist Najee (Jerome Najee Rasheed) played sax and flute and added a taste of pure jazz to the festival. He did a very sweet instrumental number that he wrote for his ex-wife. In his words, “She got the house, he got the song.” His guitarist over-sang the Freddie Jackson classic “All I Ever Ask,” but overall Najee was a breath of fresh air.
Jazz/soul-pop soprano and Grammy-winning artist Chrisette Michele is without a peer, these days. Her newly produced album “Better” gave her fresh material to sing, but most of the homogenous songs blended together without leaving a trace of a melody. A simple hymn she sang, gave her the best opportunity to showcase her voice and styling. And her new, catchy hip-hoppish tune “A Couple of Forevers” stood out slightly. She has a golden throat and complete control of her instrument. Beyoncé has nothing on her. Nothing.
Joe conjured up soul songs from his tenth album “DoubleBack: The Evolution of R&B.” His classic hits like “All the Things (Your Man Won’t Do)” and “I Wanna Know” made the ladies’ hearts beat a bit faster. He warmed the audience up for the night’s main attraction, Toni Braxton.
Braxton walked on stage regally in what looked like a black, one-piece bathing suit with a lace bib. By her standards, the costume was conservative enough for Sunday school. As she launched into her first tunes, her voice sounded faint, but it warmed up. She talked incessantly with the crowd, and seemed unable to finding her bearings. She hauled men up to the stage to flirt. She even went into the audience and sang face-to-face with fans, but that wasn’t why thousands of admirers showed up. They wanted to hear her hits. She asked the audience for requests, and then did abbreviated versions of classics like “How Could an Angel Break My Heart.” Her ambivalence was unsettling. Chrisette Michele’s voice was clear as a bell. Braxton’s was muddled. But Michele couldn’t’ find a melody and Braxton could fall back on an arsenal of enchanting songs: “You Mean the World to Me,” “Breathe Again,” “Unbreak My Heart.” She even sang “Hurt You,” from her upcoming album with Babyface.
Saturday Night February 1.
Jamaicans are not above turning a pop composition, a jazz tune or country western music into reggae songs. Hence the acceptance and joy they heaped on country western singer Crystal Gayle, who sang her signature “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue,” and did a tribute to her sister Loretta Lynne. She was followed by Aaron Neville. It is still so amazing to hear such an angelic voice come out of a big beefy guy who looks like a retired linebacker. At age 73, his voice is as supple as a teenager’s. He flowed in between his buttery falsetto and strong baritone voice effortlessly on “I Don’t Know Much,” “Stir It Up” and drove the crowd crazy when he crooned his first major hit from the year 1966, “Tell It Like It Is.”
Not all the acts were perfect: Robert Troy ‘Bobby’ Kimball, former lead singer of the 1980s Grammy-winning group Toto tried to rekindle his career, but sang precariously out of tune on “Africa” and “Rosanna.” Moses David, a.k.a. Beenie Man, a rap/dancehall artist had the misfortune of following Marcia Griffiths. After her vibrant show, his monotone rapping was D.O.A. The O’Jays’ ages are catching up with their voices, though their show is still dynamic. And hometown favorite Beres Hammond ended the festival in the middle of a downpour.
There was one other act that epitomized the top-quality artists the festival attracts year after year: Chaka Khan. Accompanied by powerful back-up singers, she didn’t have to invite strangers on stage or use other gimmicks. Her vibrant vocals were her calling cards: “Sweet Thang,” “My Funny Valentine,” “Ain’t Nobody,” “I’m Every Woman.” She’s got the songs and a voice that is as magical and precise as it was 30 years ago. Chronixx, Griffiths, Gayle, Neville and Khan were in a class all their own.
Things to do in the Solar Vortex!
The festival is just one of many reasons to visit Jamaica, especially in the winter where normal temperatures are 78 to 90. It’s not the rainy season, so sunshine is your best friend.
Places: Visit the hilly, northern town of Ocho Rios where the hottest, see-and-be-seen beach scene is at Sandals Grande Riviera Beach & Villa Golf Resort (http://www.sandals.com/main/ochorios/or-home/). Honeymoon villas dot a hillside and have private dunk pools, Jacuzzis and butler service. Across the road, there is a newly renovated beachfront property with two beaches: the smaller one, nicknamed “The Ochi Beach Club,” is for people watching and partying; the larger, more tranquil one has a circular pier that jets out into the quiet, waist-high waters.
Cuisine: Sandals’ Bayside Restaurant has panoramic ocean views and very tasty Escovitch. At night dine on the grilled Filet Mignon at Kelly’s Dockside Seaside Bar & Grill, which sits on a pier; water rushes under and around you. (At the Sandals Royal Caribbean in Montego Bay, on their private island, order the Spicy Lobster with Pepper, Ginger Lemon Grass Sauce for dinner at the Royal Thai restaurant.)
Activities: Scuba diving and snorkeling. Tennis with the young pro Ken. Golf at the U.S.G.A.-rated 18-hole golf course. A deep tissue Sports Relief massage at the Red Lane Spa. Or take a sunset cruise where the rum flows like the tides.
The annual Jazz & Blues Festival is a great reason to run away from the cold winter. Music. Sun. Beach. Sports. A visit to Jamaica (http://www.visitjamaica.com) makes a Polar Vortex a distant memory—in just about a minute.
Visit Dwight Brown at www.DwightBrownInk.com.