Jazz Festivals – The Grenada Spice Island Jazz Festival

The Grenada Spice Island Jazz Festival
The Grenada Spice Island Jazz Festival
by Sidney Bechet-Mandela

The small hospitable island of Grenada hosted its third annual jazz festival earlier this summer, from June 7th through June 11th. While other Caribbean islands are holding big jazz festivals in the winter during peak season, the promoters of this festival counter that thinking with enticements during the slow summer season. It’s a gamble that should pay off for this beautiful slice of land, the second southernmost of the chain of islands, (only Trinidad is further from the U.S. and closer to Venezuela,) especially if more of the fabulous jazz musicians from the islands are featured.

The listed stars of this year’s event were Roberta Flack, Freddie Jackson, Roy Ayers and Ed Calle, but the real stars turned out to be musicians from Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados and Grenada itself. The tourism board of the island feel that until they are established, that the procuring of pop stars who really have a minimal of jazz in their acts, if any, like Flack and Jackson is the way to go. The islanders rightfully feel that if they draw enough people to what is, without question, one of the most romantic and beautiful islands in our hemisphere, that the splendor of the setting will sell itself. It’s a tactic that the ten year old St. Lucia Jazz Festival started in their infancy, and now it’s not uncommon to have the best jazzers at that island’s late winter affair.

Growing pains were very obvious at the outset of the Grenada fest. The Wednesday night gathering was done in one of the beautiful local hotels and it featured the man who turned out to be the undisputed star of the Grenada Jazz Festival. He plays saxophone and his name is Arturo Tappin. But the performance was poorly attended.

The spirited show featured Tappin, who’s from Barbados, the excellent keyboardist Eddie Bullen, from Grenada, and a real showman on bass, also from Barbados, Nicholas Brancker. They played a strong set of funky, mostly original contemporary jazz that never flirted with the flowery wallpaper sound of a lot of smooth jazz groups. These guys were blowing. Musically, it was a rousing start to the festival, and an introduction to Tappin playing his horn. It was a sound that would be a recurring theme.

On Thursday, the music was even better. At a town hall, out side the town of St. Georges, in what looked like a small hangar, Jamaican saxophonist supreme Dean Fraser stunned a crowd of about only three hundred with reggae drenched jazz sound that is uniquely his. Liberally playing originals from his incredible albums, “Big Up,” and “Tribute To Bob Marley,” the multi-reed man burned on tenor, alto, flute and a curved soprano than seemed tiny next to the big hunk of man. He was especially passionate on the Marley tunes. Then, like an arsonist throwing gasoline to the fire, Fraser called Tappin up and the two went into the sax frenzy, that little did those gathered know would be the standout performance of the festival.

It’s not that the festival went totally down hill from there, it’s just that Roberta Flack, while in fine form, is not a jazz singer, and seemed horribly out of place. But the numbers of attendees did finally get well into the four digits for the two weekend shows held on the grounds of the island’s largest resort, the very stately Rex Grenadian.

Grenadian, Kingsley Ettienne, opened Friday night with an organ quartet augmented by two background singers. Eitenne, while a decent organist in the Jimmy Smith mode, was a horrible vocalist and his background wasn’t much better. Playing sax with that band was a Canadian of Jamaican descent, Doug Richardson, who acquitted himself well during the short opening set.

Flack followed with a long set of hits, and as it turns out, Tappin has been in and out of her band for over a year. At home, in the island, the charismatic saxophonist nearly stole the show with every Grover Washington-type lick he played behind the singer..

Roy Ayers came to the rescue the next day with an hour set that was typical Ayers. With the largest crowd of the festival at his command on that Saturday night, Ayers burned the stage with his most popular numbers like “Can’t You See Me,” “Everybody Loves The Sunshine,” and “Running Away.” His set has to be truly a glimpse of the future of the Grenada Jazz Festival, or Americans and the English, who were there in great numbers, will not continue to show up. It was obvious that the natives clearly enjoyed the pop star. Freddie Jackson, but the foreigners were left scratching their heads, many wondering who he was, until the light came on when he sung his multi-million smash “You Are My Lady,” with guess who on saxophone.

Tappin continued his domination on the last day of the festival closing it out with the fantastic world music artist from South Africa, Lorraine Klaasen. They were the finale of a four act bill staged at a beautiful peninsula on the island called Quarantine Point. It’s called that because back when tuberculosis was a problem, those with little hope were brought there. Tappin must’ve made Miami saxophonist Ed Calle sick, cause the island native totally embarrassed him. Calle set was so stale that many at the park mingled and commiserated until he was finished.

That last day was also punctuated with an incredible 30-piece steel drum band, and an exciting steel drum player named Liam Teague, who is from Trinidad, but has his music degree from Northern Illinois University. Both groups were excellent, and both delivered tunes on the island instruments that aren’t associated with the Caribbean. Teague, in particular was dazzling with his mallets, and he was the only musician throughout the whole festival who honored any of the pioneers of jazz. His set, Roy Ayers, and the discovery of a major island discovery in Tappin, are microcosms of not only what was good about the 2000 Grenada Spice Island Jazz Festival, but, in order for it to survive, a preview of what the event should aspire to.