Zara McFarlane and Jazzmeia Horn among highlights at St Lucia Jazz Fest


In recent times this event has had a tenuous relationship with jazz, as R&B and pop headliners kept pushing the 'real' exponents of the genre lower down the bill. 2018's edition bravely redresses the balance. There are instrumentalists and vocalists of the highest order, with an emphasis on Caribbean talent that also means that the week-long festival feels like much more than a roster of international musicians in an 'exotic' location. The appearance of Luther Francois at Sandals, one of the numerous hotels close to the capital Castries, is an absolute highlight. Largely unknown in Europe the St. Lucian saxophonist is an immense talent who has developed an approach to composing fully immersed in the folk and art music of the black diaspora, and he applies it to his superbly responsive 'inter-island' quintet with no concession to cliché. There is an evanescent, highly-nuanced character to many of the pieces on the setlist which is enhanced by the soloing of Antiguan trumpeter Herbert 'Happy' Lewis and leavened by St. Lucian pianist Emerson Nurse and Martiniquan double-bassist Alex Bernard, who both play prickly, off-kilter lines that infuse a delicious tension. Francois's desire to bring tempos right down, drag behind the beat or create elliptical, tantalising passages in an arrangement, is invigorating, and the contribution of the fine drummer Ricardo Francois is crucial in this respect.

The following evening British representation – with Caribbean heritage – comes from vocalist Zara McFarlane, whose dub and reggae-inflected songbook, which plays to the subtleties of her voice as well as the haunting keys of Peter Edwards, goes down well. More problematic is Dominican guitarist Cameron Pierre. On one hand his soloing and helming of an excellent rhythm section adept at calypso, swing and funk is impressive. On the other his 'banter' is seriously off-key. When he describes saxophonist Camilla George as 'a bit of eye candy' there is a gasp of disbelief if not consternation all around, a surefire indication of how misplaced such crude sexism is in this day and age. This is something of which the culprit must be aware, given that George told me that he later apologised for his misdemeanor, a totally unnecessary, embarrassing action that should never have been taken in the first place, regardless of how much rum Pierre, by his own admission, had downed prior to taking to the stage.

Had Jazzmeia Horn (pictured) been in the audience she would surely have had words of wisdom to drop, but she arrived a few days later to perform one of the standout gigs of the festival. Radiating charisma from the get-go, the vocalist lives up to the good press generated by her 2017 debut, A Social Call, through an incendiary scat technique with a range to match one of her role models, Betty Carter, as well as mature restraint on a number of ballads. Horn's acoustic quartet features the excellent alto-saxophonist Marcus G. Miller and is a compelling example of how a very classic, swing-based ensemble can vibrate with contemporary energy, primarily because of the hard edge of the rhythms, as well as the dynamic nature of the singer's approach to melody.

The closing day of the festival at the sumptuous Pigeon Point Island, just off the mainland, is literally a breath of fresh air. With a stage set up on the grassy slope near a fort which saw many a battle between the British and French in colonial times the location is an ideal pick-nick spot, and the audience, though noticeably smaller than in previous years, is in good spirits. Indeed R&R=Now, a supergroup spearheaded by Robert Glasper that features Christian Scott, Terrace Martin, Taylor McFerrin and Justin Tyson, is given a rapturous reception, in line with the stellar reputation of each member. The gig is hit and miss, though. Although this is contemporary electric fusion of the highest order it suffers from Glasper's self-indulgence, particularly when he 'sings' tracks like 'Calls' – where is Jill Scott when we need her? – and generally the arrangements are too meandering for their own good. It is in the final part of the set that the band starts to cook and the tapestry of electronics is thrillingly woven into the pulsating rhythm section. In contrast, Avery Sunshine hits the ground running and her sheer 'lift your voice to the lord' verve as well as vocal prowess has the crowd onside from the downbeat. This is a fine display of vintage soul with jazz inflections, and a firing four-piece band – complete with churchy B3 organ – makes Sunshine's references clear. She ends with a mash-up of Al Green and James Brown, and the audience turns the island from prayer meeting to funk revue under the night sky.

Kevin Le Gendre