Sixth show a strong Jazz in the Gardens 2015 finale
From motor cars to music, longevity is an excellent test of quality and 17 years provides a good stretch of time for evaluating both. Nancy McLean, executive producer of Jazz in the Gardens which takes place at The Jamaica Pegasus hotel, New Kingston, told me on Sunday that the series has been around for about that length of time, so the logical conclusion is that the series is of a high quality.
But it was probably not logic that brought hundreds of music lovers pouring onto the hotel's lawns on Sunday. Loyalty and/or habit might have accounted for many who came, and from previous visits over the years, I know there are quite a few regulars. For them, the series' return in 2015 after a break last year must have been a relief.
The concert's title, 'The Best of Jazz in the Gardens 2015', would have pulled in some others, and the scheduled performers even more. That line-up included keyboard player and violinist Jon Williams and vocalists Karen Smith, Jabez, Diamara Neil-Walker, and Rojjah.
They were backed by the Desi Jones and Friends Band, which comprises Jones (drums), Adrian Henry (bass), Robert Browne (guitar) and Chris McDonald (keyboard and back-up vocalist). Yet another 'performer' was actor and radio advice-show host Vernon Derby, who proved to be a jovial, joke-cracking MC.
An early indication that the performers were top-of-the-line was the fact that the versatile Karen Smith, who sings jazz as well as pop and soca, was not in her usual position of last on the card. That's the coveted 'main act' position for performing artistes.
In fact, aside from the band, Smith was first on stage. As usual, she was excellent.
A real professional, Smith always gives her all, so her choice of the bouncy jazz standard All of Me was appropriate. She slowed down the pace quite a bit to end her set by teaming up with McDonald for The Prayer. The soulfully delivered song introduced a religious note which would be sounded a few more times throughout the evening.
But not by the next performer, Jon Williams, though he is well known for being strongly religious. He stuck to secular pieces, beginning on the keyboard with the very jazzy Joy Spring. It was followed by Imani, a pretty, melodious composition which Williams told us he wrote to celebrate the birth of his daughter about 21 years ago.
Williams played a Latin-flavoured variation on a piece by the famous Italian composer-violinist Paganini (1782-1840) on the violin. A very lively piece, it had many heads bobbing and more feet tapping.
"Wow!" exclaimed the woman sitting beside me as Williams ended his set with a lightning-fast rendition of the Jamaican folk tune Christmas a Come, Mi Waan Mi Lama. The intensity of Williams' performance was greatly enhanced by Jones' frenetic playing of his drums.
Derby promised that the next performer, Jabez, would "bring the Holy Spirit" with him to the stage. He did, but not before he had sung the pop songs One in a Million and Looks Like I'm Never Gonna Fall in Love Again.
Jabez informed the audience that he is a pastor and sings both gospel and religious songs. The two religious songs that he did, My Cup Has Overflowed and Ah Nuh One Prayer We Pray, were separated by a bit of preaching. It was mainly to encourage his listeners to be grateful for God's blessings and went down well. Jabez has a warm, humorous personality and the audience readily stood, danced, clapped hands and sang along as he led us in Ah Nuh One Prayer, his last song.
During the intermission Derby called 20 to 30 members of the audience who were celebrating birthdays or wedding anniversaries onto the stage. After being serenaded with the Happy Birthday/Anniversary song by McDonald and radio host Heather Grant, they were invited to have a slice of cake at a table out of the audience's sight.
In a short thank you speech to the audience for the support she has had over the year, McLean said it was the sixth show for the year, as they are mounted every other month. McLean promised another six in 2016, the first on February 28.
"You're in for a treat," she promised, but opted out of giving any hints about the acts to come.
Afterwards, in a one-to-one chat with me, she said that while the series was off in 2014, the demand from the public was so great that she had to bring it back in 2015.
First on stage after the intermission was Neil-Walker, who said that in addition to singing she also writes poetry and songs. After her first item, I Can Only Imagine, a lively, jazz-gospel number addressed to Jesus, Neil-Walker sang one of her own compositions, Do You Have Burdens That Weigh you Down?, which is in a similar vein.
The comment from the woman beside me after Neil-Walker had finished her intense set - Just a Closer Walk With Thee and In the Sweet Bye and Bye were the last two songs - was "she's amazing."
That could also be applied to the final performer for the evening, Rojjah, who dances and sings with the energy of a Michael Jackson. For the entire 30 minutes that he was on stage for eight songs, he didn't stop moving for more than a second.
Rojjah's feet flashed about, his hips jerked, hands and arms flew up and around as he delivered his set, starting with I Wish it Would Rain and ending with Forever Young. Bob Marley's Could you Be Loved and Jimmy Cliff's Trapped were particularly powerful, but every song was a hit with the audience.
The evening ended with all the artistes who had performed, except for Smith, returning to the stage to sing, along with the audience, Lean on Me. The group singalong provided a very satisfying end to a delightful evening.