If ever there was an idyllic setting for holding a jazz festival, the organisers of the Mercedes Benz Colombo Jazz Festival found it. This was the second year of this festival and Gehan Fernando, the organiser and mastermind behind this venture held this festival in the lawns of the colonial hotel The Galle Face Hotel over 18-19 February. Directly behind the large single stage was the Indian Ocean while the huge lawns provided the space for the audience with wine and gin bars, food and ice cream. In this user friendly space, families with children and jazz connoisseurs alike partook of the two-day festival. It would not be an easy task to listen to music from 2 pm to midnight for two days in a row, but the fluid, almost picnic like atmosphere made it comfortable for the audience.
The quality of the bands chosen for the Colombo Jazz Festival was varied in both the nature of their sounds and their background. Groups from the US, UK, Australia, India, South Africa, Sri Lanka and elsewhere played at the festival, while the sounds were those of a big band, a blues band, popular and R&B, soul, straight ahead jazz and standards.
The headliner at the festival was the well established British jazz band Incognito. This band has been playing for 38 years and in this time has imbibed the various idioms of jazz of this period. Thus one can hear the influences of the Crusaders, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye all combined with their original arrangements. All this put together in a framework of a band with three vocalists, three horn players — saxophone, trombone and trumpet, two guitarists, a bass player, a percussionist and a drummer makes for a powerful music vehicle! The band was founded by and is still led by the charismatic Jean Paul Maunik (Bluey) who is a guitarist, composer, vocalist and leader. While 'Bluey' cites musicians Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder and the group Earth Wind and Fire as his inspirations, he has worked with music greats like George Benson, Stevie Wonder and Maxi Priest.
There was a near disaster on day one of the festival — unseasonal rain, which led to it's stoppage in the early evening. However, when the show was resumed, Bluey turned this situation into a virtue with a fantastic set of music. He said, "A festival is a celebration and we are celebrating this music, ignoring the setback due to the rain. We have setbacks in life but we should overcome them with a smile". His vocalists, Vanessa Hayes from Trinidad and Tobago and Imami from Sri Lanka were quite superb.
Rain played spoilsport again on Day 2 just after a sophisticated jazz set by British trumpet player Kevin Davy playing the music of Miles Davis. Sadly, a second set from this talented group, scheduled for later had to be cancelled due to the rain disruption.
Instead, the stunning blues set played by Mud Morganfield, son of the all time blues great Muddy Waters, somewhat compensated the audience for its patience. A blues superstar in his own right, Morganfield played many songs made famous by his father, including "Hoochie Coochie Man".
The South African band Major Minor, with a powerful vocalist plus a trumpet and trombone had the crowd dancing to their groove. The band that swept away everything was El Trio from the US, led by Marco Mendosa on bass and vocals. The audience couldn't have enough of this group with their combination of funk, R&B and rock sounds. Their encore of a James Brown song was the highlight of their set.
Overall, this was a festival which had a lot of plusses from an audience point of view. The mix of music was right, satisfying most tastes, the venue was comfortable and welcoming and the sound was excellent — there was never a note distorted and the music sounded good from anywhere in the venue. The recovery from the unusual rain delay was very well handled. One was disappointed, though, with the delay between acts, with new sound checks and adjustments. The long break between sets broke the continuity for the listeners. I hope the organisers will iron out this little irritant for their future festivals. The Colombo Jazz Festival can only become bigger and better each year.
Updated Date: Feb 26, 2017 15:25 PM