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What should have been a jubilant celebration slowly atrophied over the weeklong tenth anniversary event largely the fault of organizer Gilbert Rowe's allergy to main steam jazz.

Programming has never been one of Mr. Rowe's most accomplished assets given his penchant for run of the mill smooth jazz ensembles. One can hardly believe Bajans would turn away in droves if for once the sound of blues, swing or bebop filled the serene enclaves that serve as staging zones for the nightly concerts.

By limiting the festival to such mundane bands as Spyro Gyra, Chicagoan Steve Cole, Regina Belle and others, Mr. Rowe's bookings played second party to Earth Wind & Fire Live! - blasting from the house sound system at Farley Hill Park during set up between bands. For three successive years the park erupts during the first strains of Boogie Wonderland.

Night one Cuban pianist Chucho Valdes was a no show leaving the festival short a potential headliner and any possible connection with jazz. The next most promising jazz artist in waiting - Jamaica's Ernest Ranglin whose live performances are often spotty at best. Such was the case for his opening set at Garfield Sobers Complex preceding Al Jarreau.

Ranglin is a huge slice of contemporary music history in Jamaica where his innovative jazz guitar styling helped usher in ska and reggae. As a stand alone performer much depends on his penchant for playing sparsely crafted originals that fall short of being actual songs. The motifs begin in earnest but flow awkwardly through scripted transitions. Those bits of melody that hold so much early promise run into difficulty as the chords move away from vamping into uncharted territory. Without consistency and a clever means to navigate movement the tunes become fragments never delivering complete resolution or satisfaction.

Ranglin was also inhibited by what seemed a pick up unit. The playing was tepid and frayed around the edges.

Al Jarreau faired much better. Jarreau always surrounds himself with superb musicians. It was a pleasure watching someone energized by the music they were creating.

Jarreau made himself familiar with every corner of the stage as he pranced about like a lion in a newly discovered forest. His hand and facial contortions emanate deep within coming from a place connecting heart with soul.

Jarreau's been around long before smooth jazz to have a greater association with rhythm & blues, jazz, and fusion jazz. If he were to be faulted for anything it would be the greater time spent singing in nasal voice rather than opening up the tonally rich areas of his magnificent throat.

Pacing is an attribute to Jarreau's live performances. He realizes the dynamics involved in staging a gratifying show. There are mid tempo hits, up tempo sambas, ballads and rarified funk musings all placed strategically to guarantee comfort.

If there were a savior it would be rhythm and blues queen Patti LaBelle.

It had been six long years between appearances in Barbados. In that time the hair had lengthened into a long straight ponytail, the pounds had been shed and diabetes had made an unwelcome arrival. Even with health issues Labelle displayed uncompromising strength and stamina as she testified through hit after hit in what seemed like one long reaffirmation of all that is important in this life. She truly seems to be someone at peace with herself able to simultaneously concentrate on both audience and complex vocal lines.

LaBelle needs to possess her audience in a way that at times is a bit unnerving. Such was the case during the dressing down of Bajan men who she found short on enthusiasm. This is where the great cultural divide reared its implacable head.

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To expect Afro-Caribbean people to react as Afro-Americans is like asking Japanese and Vietnamese to sing the same lyrics, or Swedes and Aussies to dance the Texas two step. These are distinctly different worlds. LaBelle didn't read it that way.

By taunting a solemn male face sitting front row and allowing her playfulness to border near mean-spiritedness LaBelle came close to sabotaging all that was glorious the preceding moments. Fortunately, for all of us the pulsating rhythm got a greater portion of the audience to turn up the bump and grind just enough to dissuade Lady LaBelle from wrecking a spectacular performance.

The near ministerial atmosphere on main stage took on a more serene mood backstage as Labelle met the press. It was here she made peace with the gentleman who endured the misspent ramblings. It was her sincerity and careful choice of words that went a long way in mending fences. Her over zealous handlers tried to limit questioning but LaBelle insisted on answering the most inquisitive musings.

Singing is Labelle's shining glory. She traverses a strata where only a few anointed Divas rule. Throughout the evening performance she inhaled every rhythmic and electric pulse emanating from her carefully groomed band deep into the muscle tissue of the diaphragm just long enough to cultivate before launching each soulful vocal declaration to every empty and occupied corner of the Garfield Sobers Complex. That itself is quite a feat!

In past years Barbados has witnessed the very best of the smooth jazz performers whose music is actually more rooted in rhythm and blues than pop. David Sanborn, Dave Koz and Grover Washington represent the cut-above-the-rest crowd. Most others are pale imitations lacking dynamics, melodic significance, harmonic inventiveness and tempo variance.

Visit Webbandstand.comThis year's cast laid bare the weaker inclinations of a genre ripe with mediocrity.

Chicagoan Steve Cole blew tenor saxophone with such fortitude one could only hope he'd catch a breath long enough to think about the cache of clichés left stranded in Farley Hill Park. It was through sheer volume that Cole and company went about manipulating the mostly preoccupied partygoers. If Cole could have assembled one memorable phrase possibly the tiring act could survive to live another day.

Syro Gyra has been around long enough to earn their Grandfathers of smooth jazz stripes. Twenty-five years penning simplistic peppy samba like originals, new age noodlings and soulless adventures into rhythm blues still doesn't add up to much. It was less than inspiring to witness live.

Regina Belle? Why? Out of tune, out of synch, out of sight! One octave range, one degree of heat.

Lessons learned.

Without direction and vision Barbados Jazz will become a less significant stop for jazz lovers wanting a reprieve from a brisk northern wind. With St. Lucia a hundred miles away and a enviable cast of performers drawn from a wide cross section of jazz, blues, Latin, pop and funk, many may wish to defer that much needed vacation to May.

Lesson two. International press isn't the most beloved entity with organizer Gilbert Rowe. Some years Rowe feels the necessity of our presence - other times fails to control the nonsensical heavy-handed security officers sent to apprehend photographers. This year the ridiculous barrier erected in front of Farley Hill Park's main stage to keep photojournalist at bay clearly answered any doubt concerning Mr. Rowe's intentions. Especially after viewing the local press securely ensconced side stage.

Visit Ejazznews.comBarbados Tourism Authority and all other sponsors deserve better - a better festival, better artists and congenial rapport with the man at the top. Without compromise and reasonable capitulation Mr. Rowe may one day find himself pontificating to an audience of one.
By Bill King, Editor, and Publisher - The Jazz Report Magazine.

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