Driving rhythm and family values

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Barbados cultivates an open-spirited, relaxed demeanour, and Bajans are certainly generous in their hospitality (as I found when, dropped at the wrong hotel, I was plied for several hours with rum punches to help me survive the ordeal). But as Wednesday’s main attraction at the island’s annual jazz festival, the Grammy-winning vocalist Macy Gray, discovered to her cost, Bajan public life has strict moral parameters. Swearing on stage can land you in jail, and the American R&B singer’s generous use of Eddie Murphy’s favourite expletive led to a small audience walkout and threats of police intervention. The concert was followed up with an extra-ordinary press conference, which was more like an exercise in public humiliation.

Gray’s first album, On How Life Is, promised much as part of a nu-soul aesthetic that developed the estranged sound qualities and knowing production values that characterised Prince’s best work. Since that release she has rather faded from view, but at this concert she and her on-the-button nine-piece band delivered a 75-minute set of great contemporary songs subtly steeped in the Afro-American music tradition. On this evidence, she is right back in contention.

Gray’s spacious and precise music has a strong rhythmic foundation, whether it is a crashing three-note bass line locked into a sharp displaced crack from the snare drum, a repetitive riff from a cheap-sounding organ or a nagging clavinet. Over this, Gray’s technically astute vocals and ambiguously voiced toasting give a childlike edge to the adult concerns of personal relationships and creative development. Jazzy instrumental breaks from two keyboards, including musical director Cassandra O’Neal, were particularly impressive, and guitarist Joshua Lopez and an operatic percussionist helped sustain the audience’s interest.

Add in two backing vocalists who danced with a knowing innocence that matched the leader’s, a wealth of well-worked subtle detail – I particularly liked the marching reggae beat that mutated into an ever-accelerating klezmer knees-up – and it was clear that here was a performer who cared a lot about the outcome of this gig. She certainly did not deserve a public dressing-down on camera, at which festival organiser Gilbert Rowe referred to Barbados’s reputation for “propriety, decency and adherence to the law”.

Perhaps Gray’s dignified apology was the price for avoiding prosecution, perhaps this saved the festival for another year, but the episode left a slightly acid taste, especially as the singer’s problem words, a brilliant put-down of men in the tradition of Millie Jackson, were a preamble to “I Try”, a song that lays bare the anxieties of embarking on a relationship. In this context, the language was appropriate, and actually very funny.

Gray’s expletives – 16 of them, according to the story splashed on the front page of a Barbados newspaper – became a national issue. But with Anita Baker headlining the next main concert, Barbados’s commissioner of police could relax. And when the American singer announced “we’re gonna try to keep it clean, ’cause it’s a family show”, the applause was heartfelt.

Baker established her inter-national career with albums such as Rapture in the 1980s. She specialised in relationship-friendly soul ballads, played out over lush synthesised strings, insidious bass lines and ultra-hip guitar riffs. With a rich lower register, controlled high notes and a sense of total vocal control, she extolled the wonders and worries of being in love, supported by production values that oozed quality and success, and won her massive audience loyalty. It is a loyalty that she has sustained – throughout the concert dozens of women stood to sing into imaginary microphones, mouthing every word and inflection.

At this gig, the musical focus and quality of production remained largely intact and, as she said, she just wanted to “sing a bunch of old love songs and some old ballads”, which was exactly what her audience wanted too. On stage, she comes across as a slightly batty, homespun mum, with an infectious self-deprecatory laugh and a love of singing, a persona light years from the closely manicured image of her international debut in 1986, and far more winning.

Saturday’s all-jazz bill was presented outdoors at Farley Park, a palm grove overlooking the ocean, and a big improvement on the main indoor venue, the Gary Sobers Gymnasium. The afternoon of high-octane festival jazz, perfect for the mass of picnicking families, climaxed with the flamboyant Cuban trumpeter Arturo Sandoval. Earlier, we had thunderous hardcore jazz-rock from bass tyro Stanley Clark and efficient smooth-jazz from Bajan Arturo Tappins. The subtleties, however, were provided by another Cuban trumpeter, the youthful Yasek Manzano, making his debut on the international festival circuit.

Afro-Cuban jazz’s driving pulse, dramatic brass figures and unison riffs can swamp individual identity. Sandoval’s traditional solution is to maintain an irresistible beat, and showcase his musicians’ dexterity. Whirling keyboards, strident multi-noted tenor sax and dense percussion were all wheeled out, but it was Sandoval’s combination of rhythmic subtlety and bravura technique that really stood out.

The new generation tends to be more collective in its approach, the riffs less fixed and the tone darker, but the rhythmic pulse and tight arrangements remain. Manzano’s set opened with a harmonically dense “Caravan”, contrasted a sultry “Bésame Mucho” with an austere original, “Mathematician”, before finishing with an impressive scat vocal on Sonny Rollins’ “Pent-Up House”.

Clark is the jazz-purist’s nightmare. He delivers the fastest, hardest, most intricate bass lines ever created, with an unassailable technique and a winning smile. His adrenalin-fuelled set, played at a bone-crunching volume, was a virtual dialogue between his power-funk bass, a heavy backbeat and twin bass drum thunder. Electric violin and keyboard were competent relief, but the bass was centre-stage. The audience loved every ear-splitting minute.

Overall, it is clear that the Barbados Jazz Festival does not run a strict jazz policy. Terence Blanchard and Robert Glasper, who opened it, are both first-rate contemporary acoustic acts, and were brilliantly received, but the programme was fusion-heavy, while Baker, great in her own right, is but a distant relative. Even so, although it is probably too jazz-light for the hardcore fan, it is perfect for anyone who wants a winter vacation with some groovy music on the side.

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