Cayman Jazz Fest 2009 was a resounding success, the three-night festival drawing huge names in music to a crowd made up of residents and visitors enjoying a high-quality boost to their hard-earned vacations.
The event continues to grow apace and is rapidly becoming a must-see amongst music fans eager to experience a concert in the beautiful early December evenings here in Cayman. The new Camana Bay site, complete with local food vendors providing delicious goodies from Cayman and further afield, was the biggest ever as Friday and Saturday ramped up the excitement, while Thursday’s intimate concert at Pedro St. James brought class and history to the table.
The fifth annual Cayman Jazz Fest had its official launch on Thursday, 3 November at the Pedro Castle.
Emceeing all three nights of Jazz Fest were Caymanian actor Brian Braggs, who has been slated to appear in two feature-length films next year, and KK Alese, one the Island’s brightest young stars in music.
The concert, which featured world-renowned artists such as Oleta Adams and Kirk Whalum, was the first in a series of shows held as part of the festival.
Also performing on the evening was Cayman’s own Hi Tide, who nearly stole the show.
Hi Tide, a duo comprised of Sean Hennings and Sean Allenger has blazed a trail through Cayman for some years now and has been gaining recognition in international markets as well.
For Thursday night’s performance, the group received a helping hand from bass guitar aficionado ‘Bugs’ Wilson.
As the evening began to gain momentum fans were treated to a riveting performance by Oleta Adams, whose vocal range seemed to end somewhere over the rainbow.
Ms Adams told the audience that she had performed in many places but there was something about Cayman that made her feel like she had ‘left the rat race behind.’
She joked that she had asked her husband if they could just stay here, which later became, ‘Can we stay until we run out of money,’ to which he said, ‘We’ve already run out of money.’
However, expense aside, the crooner said that she would definitely be coming back to the Cayman Islands and began to ‘[m]ake music with purpose’, as she described it.
The crowd listened intently to Ms Adams’ performance; waiting for the night’s rendition of her smash hit Get Here for which she received a boisterous round applause and much appreciation from the crowd of roughly 1,500 people.
Next on the line-up was saxophone prodigy Kirk Whalum, who bedazzled those on hand with a rich blend of jazz, which featured a gospel twist.
In addition, Mr. Whalum belted out a few ballads vocally and invited Ms Adams to join him on stage for what was to be a stunning combination of abilities that left the crowd satisfied.
The Caymanian Compass caught up with several tourists at the event, who said they travelled to Grand Cayman specifically for the show and revealed that the desire to come to the Island was validated by the festival and the time of year.
Antoinette Bradley and Patricia Betts of Louisiana said this was their first time in Cayman but it would not be their last.
The best friends explained that they were extremely impressed with how clean Cayman was compared to many other Caribbean destinations they had visited for festivals.
Pamela Gauthier and Sammy Gervais of Hamilton, Ontario said they too were here strictly for the series of shows and had tickets for all three nights.
They added that there was an ambience of romance and intrigue surrounding the Cayman Islands and the Jazz Fest only served to add to that allure.
According to all on hand, Thursday’s event was an impeccable display of professionalism on the part of the artists and organisers, which set the tone for the entire three-day event.
Big Eye Squirrel opened proceedings in lively style on Friday, Happy All The Time’s reggae-rock pushing out the energy to the growing crowd. Talented guitarist Jon Ebanks was slick and skysoaring at equal turn; there aren’t many people who can take on a Hendrix number and live to tell the tale but Ebanks and his band flew through Red House with aplomb.
It’s testament to the talent of the local-based acts that young soul singer Ricco Orrett-Ebanks, son of renowned local singer Nina Orrett, was promoted from the side stage to show off his fantastic voice to the main crowd. Ebanks, with excellent accompaniment from Rhianna Rodriguez on piano, is a real talent and at the age of 13 there is surely the brightest of futures ahead.
Mike Phillips, who had been visiting local schools earlier in the day, is a familiar Jazz Fest performer and his third appearance was as welcoming, engaging and fun as anything on show. There’s not a stage built that can contain the saxophone genius, and he quickly jumped into the crowd to fizz through a set that referenced everyone from Stevie Wonder to John Coltrane.
The ebullient Phillips was keen to praise the musicianship not only of his fantastic band but Caymanian artists too. Not content with being one of the best sax players on the planet, Phillips is also adept with a bit of freestyle rap, spitting out the rhymes with some aplomb although not so nimble on his feet at other times – like when he fell offstage during one particularly energetic jump.
Double Grammy-winner Peabo Bryson has a voice made of silk and the veteran caressed the crowd with his set. If there was somewhere for young Ricco to aim for, it is toward the control of expression and depth of richness that permeated every phrase of Bryson’s time onstage. The classic feel was another high spot of an evening that was to come to quite a climax with the appearance of Harlem dude Keith Sweat.
Sweat has sold more than 15 million albums worldwide, scored six number one singles in the R’n’B charts and is also an accomplished producer and radio host. The man’s charisma and huge hits, including Twisted, filled the arena with world-class technique. Those who left because of the lateness of the hour missed a man at the top of his game, Sweat having added maturity to his youthful twinkle of dog days past as the last billows of jerk smoke diffused over Camana Bay.
Saturday began with Shakira-esque hip-shaking from Andrea Riviera and Los Tropicanos, with a performance of her single Drop It the funkiest moment in a latino-pop set. Absolute Joy’s instrumental versions included a lounge jazz run-through of Bob Marley’s Waiting in Vain as the experienced Cayman musicians showed off their chops. Jeffrey Wilson’s voice is strong enough to take on Bridge Over Troubled Water, an affecting and emotional moment for all in the crowd as thoughts turned to family and friends who’ve passed on over the years.
After the ceremony to honour veterans of the arts scene in Cayman, it was Barbadian saxophonist Arturo Tappin who was responsible for ramping up the energy. Another hugely-talented musician, his own Bob Marley tribute took in several ultra-familiar Caribbean hits from the genius rasta whose life and music truly changed the lives of people worldwide.
To round it off, Tappin launched into a track that he introduced by saying it was ‘about some special cakes with an added ingredient’ – cheekily referring to rum cake, of course. Blame It, a cover of the Jamie Foxx hit, was immaculate, feisty and fabulous.
With a voice somewhere between Corinne Bailey Rae and Bjork, Elle Varner was quickly able to shrug off the rising and vocal Alicia anticipation with her unique style, warm personality and catchy melodic pop.
Given that her usual keyboard player had suffered a burst appendix the previous night and her good old dad – producer Jimmy Varner – stepped in at the last minute, it was an accomplished performance. No doubt the world will hear a lot more from a rising artist whose distinctive style and engaging way with crowd interaction was evident even at this early stage in her career.
Performing in front of a massive crowd did not faze her; it may have been the first time she’d sung in front of 5,000 but chances are it won’t be the last; here in Cayman we saw her blossom before our eyes which is a definite feather in the cap for the event.
Jermaine Paul, a singer who has performed for and with Alicia Keys for many years, came onstage for a few solo songs of his own, shocking the audience with his amazingly powerful and soul-driven voice. He closed out his set with his debut solo single, Airplane, which he recently released on iTunes. However, the singer has been working solidly in the industry for the last 13 years, recording duets with artists including Shaquille O’Neal, Alicia Keys and Kanye West.
Alicia Keys opened her show performing Wreckless Love from her third studio album, As I Am. She then put together an inspired jazz arrangement of Karma; a clever move considering she was performing at a jazz festival, as the arrangement fit Jazz Fest’s ambience much better than the single’s original sound, with its heavy hip hop beats, would have. Later in the evening she also remixed her very first single Fallen. After this performance, she said a demure ‘thank you’ and left the stage.
Most who have attended major concerts before know the power of an encore, and knew that this could not be her big exit. Although many had left already, after a few minutes’ interlude by her band, she returned to perform Empire State of Mind (Part II), her version of her current hit single with Jay-Z. In Part II, she replaces Jay-Z’s rap verses with her own penned homage to New York. This version of Empire State of Mind will also be on her new album. Of course, to the crowd’s delight, she also performed No One, which closed the night.
Fans were given a sneak peek into her new album, The Element of Freedom, scheduled to drop 15 December, throughout her performance. The star sang Doesn’t Mean Anything, which is currently high on the charts as her first single from the new album, as well as Try Sleeping with a Broken Heart, which will also be featured on the new album and has been released as the album’s second single.
A Woman’s Worth, a song Alicia herself said was one of her favourites, and If I Ain’t Got You were also hits that drew a huge reaction from the crowd.
In between songs, Alicia invited applause for her band and reminded the audience of her appreciation for their support, saying in her lead into If I Ain’t Got You that she wanted to ‘show you how much I cherish you.’ That kind of appreciation went down well with the crowd, who responded by cheering and singing along for the entire set.
As people filed patiently across the bridge back toward their cars, the excitement and passion for music engendered by a world-class event was palpable. From the young local acts through to the multi-million-selling international artists, the sense was that Cayman had been, for a magical three-day spell, the centre of music. Roll on 2010.
Caymanian Compass reporters Anna Wootton, Michael Klein and Stuart Wilson also contributed to this report.