JAZZ / Soca stars: Phil Johnson on the finger-licking, foot-tapping St Lucia Jazz Festival

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The Independent Culture
Imagine John Major and Ted Hughes out for a night on the razz at the Fridge in Brixton, and you get some idea of the importance that the Friday night jump-up holds for the cultural life of St Lucia. Each week the shanty- town streets of Gros Islet are converted into an alfresco night-club booming to the sounds of reggae and soca; seemingly everyone on the island goes to dance and drink until dawn, including the great and the good. Nobel Prize-winner Derek Walcott was there and various public functionaries drifted through carrying bottles of Piton beer and legs of jerked chicken.

Musical appreciation in St Lucia tends towards loud talking, raucous laughter and, as a local calypso has it, 'too much foul language and bad chicken behaviour'. Jazz is not guaranteed an easy ride, even at the island's annual jazz festival. Take Herbie Hancock for instance. Playing on the main festival stage, in a superstar quartet of Wayne Shorter, Stanley Clarke and Terri Lynne Carrington, Hancock arrived late and neglected to speak to the already restive audience - a clear breach of island manners.

The crowd showed its disdain with calls of 'Fusion]' and 'Bebop]', and a bout of frenzied bass-slapping from Clarke came too late to stop them heading for home.

George Benson, who closed the festival the following day, was much more amenable. 'The indigenous people, that's what St Lucia is all about]' he said, to huge cheers. His remarks hit a chord: the festival was originally conceived as a bait for low-season tourists, and ticket prices are beyond the reach of most locals, though they turned out in force for George. He was magnificent too, moving judiciously between jazz guitar, soul vocals and showbiz schmaltz. For his version of 'Unforgettable', he alternated vocal lines in the style of first Nat, then Natalie Cole; when he started on a slow romantic ballad, a voice from the crowd called out 'Shit, man] I need my wife]', cueing much bad chicken behaviour; when he reached the Essex anthem of 'Breezin' ', 3,000 people got up to dance. He made the most of the Caribbean setting, the corny lyric of Bobby Darin's 'Sailing' allowing him to point to the sea and the stars, as convenient props to the words of the song.

For the more serious side of jazz, one had to go indoors, to the Cultural Centre in Castries, where Betty Carter and her trio were received with reverential silence. She was preceded by a rather worthy suite - the festival's first commission - composed by the excellent local saxophonist Luther Francois. There was also a strong Anglo-Caribbean contingent: the quartet of British pianist Julian Joseph played thrillingly and, on the final day, London's Jazz Jamaica proved a surprise hit, playing ska versions of jazz standards and delighting the audience with declarations of pan-Caribbean solidarity.

Musically, the marvellous African-Brazilian band of pianist Don Pullen were the best of all. Pullen plays the piano like the percussion instrument it partly is, slapping the keys with his palms, fists and elbows while an African hand-drummer beats and chants and Carlos Ward on alto sax blows beautiful melodies over the top. Though Pullen is skeletally thin and rumoured to be very ill, he comes on like the coolest man in the world; as the band hits a ferocious samba rhythm, Pullen sits laconically on the piano stool and surveys the audience for a while before unleashing another flurry of blows at the keys. As Latin jazz goes, it was just about as good as it gets.

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