Jazz, like tobacco, is best taken in moderation, amidst good company, and on warm evenings. But with the proper ratio of all the aforementioned (as well as improper and totally irrational quantities of alcohol), I figured the Mount Lavinia Jazz Festival could hardly fail to be an (un)healthy antidote to the various bastard offspring of ‘jazz’ more typically found in Colombo: muzak in Barista, Palm Court piano at the Cinnamon Grand, bad Bob Marley covers on the MC PA…
I may have been wrong.
In keeping with the jazz ethos (and the bus ‘timetable’) we rocked up about 45 minutes into proceedings. The Barefoot Jazz Quartet were playing – a dark, Doors-ish piece called ‘Take 10’. Which was great… except we had just come from Barefoot, where lunch and beer had set us back, all in, less than the price of entry at ‘The Mount’, and where the music of the BJQ (there known simply as ‘the band’) had been available, at no extra cost, for most of the afternoon.
There was then a half-hour, unscheduled break (the first of several), in which a CD played, punctuated by aimless flutters on the saxophone and mumbles of ‘testing, testing; check one…’. I took to entertaining myself with the more exotic names in the programme. Revel Crake, Royle de Andrewes and – I quote – ‘Rashid Adbur-Rahman of Puerto Rico’ (‘firstname.lastname@example.org’?) were strong contenders; but Adonis de Jesus won it by a doubly-mythical mile.
By 8 pm. we were fully one act behind the running order.
Natasha and Dillain came on and did their lounge-songstresses thing, and ‘their’ rendition (was it Dillain or Natasha?) of ‘Norwegian Wood’ took the gongs for Most Improv(.)ed Song as well as Best In Show. Then they moved into more Cole Porterish territory: the remainder of their act was very settled, very cool.
But when they were done, I heard one lady turn to her companion and say: ‘That wasn’t jazz. That was blues.’ And she was right.
Jazz is a broad church these days; but, as Samson might have lamented, forcibly repositioning the church walls doth not a cathedral make (actually, I don’t think Samson was all that quick; but you get my point).
Divya’s opening number had so much funk rubbed on it you could have put it in a Tarantino movie and smoked it. It was good, but more Brand New Heavies than classical jazz. Successive items combined ‘80s slap-bass with Beth Gibbons vocals, Santana guitar with baila drumming. And Groovin’ High’s Wurlitzer man seemed to be auditioning for the part of Jools Holland (or Christopher Holland, at least). Rhythm-and- blues, yes; jazz, not so much.
Of course, there was nothing wrong with any of the performances (even if, as my girlfriend remarked, none of the music made one want to dash to the nearest CD shop); but the evening typified, to my delicate sensibilities, a melee of uncontrolled flavours that were largely on the wrong side of the jazz/funk taste-bud.
By the time Jerome Speldewinde joined the Barefoot gang to form The Burgher All Stars (Diana Krall arrangements and the like, with Speldewinde smooth as ever on guitar and vocals), the fact that this was the only real jazz offering was almost overwhelmed by my irritation that I’d already seen him perform gratis this afternoon, too.
What I saw of the festival hinted at a complacency on the Colombo music scene (If You Stage It They Will Come), and a complaisance amongst the punters. Over-egged publicity proclaiming international stars; overly-casual stage-management; a line-up of musicians you could see almost any weekend in the city. And the end product? Little more than background music that refused to stay in the background – and yet also proved incapable of coming into its own.
When the sound system sputtered out for the nth time, we called for arrack and lit up a couple of Cubans. All things considered, we should probably have done so sooner.