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Festival Review: Colombo Jazz Festival 2017

Despite repeated disruptions due to the weather, the festival managed to impress with a lineup that featured Mud Morganfield, Incognito and more

Sunil Sampat Feb 27, 2017
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Incognito low res

Jean Paul Maunick, leader of headlining band Incognito, introduced his band as the ‘United Nations of Incognito,’ with musicians from Trinidad and Tobago, England, Portugal, Italy and more.

On February 18th and 19th, 2017, the second edition of the Mercedes Benz Colombo Jazz Festival was held at the picturesque Galle Face Hotel, a majestic colonial establishment at the prime location on the shores of the Indian Ocean in Colombo.

The festival hosted bands from everywhere – the U.S.A., Australia, the U.K., India, South Africa and of course, Sri Lanka. However, the musicians in these bands came from various other countries. In fact the leader of headlining band Incognito introduced his band as the ‘United Nations of Incognito,’ with musicians from Trinidad and Tobago, Saint Lucia, England, Scotland, Portugal, Italy and the leader himself from Mauritius. Jazz speaks such an eloquent universal language these days!

The two day festival, held over Saturday and Sunday had been planned for almost ten hours of jazz each day, a tough ask for most listeners, calling for long hours of concentration. However, this was mitigated by the high comfort levels for the audience. The informality of watching the stage from large lawns created an easy picnic atmosphere for the listeners with easy access to food, drink and merchandise. Added to this was the brilliant handling of the sound system by sound technician Malinda Lowe and fluid compering by the knowledgable Arun Bandaranaike and Leah. The organizer, Gehan Fernando had put a fine team together – these details make for comfortable viewing and listening.

The music at the festival was a well chosen mix of straight ahead jazz, the blues, R&B, funk and ballads and was of a consistently high standard. The only band from India was the Bengaluru-based Beer Puppets with Shreya Bhattacharya. Ultimately, they never got to perform; rain on both afternoons played havoc with the open air festival programming and the Beer Puppets, among others, never got on stage. However, there was a silver lining to this disruption; A few musicians jammed impromptu in the veranda of the hotel and Bhattacharya finally got the chance to show off her vocals. Fernando rated this unscheduled session as one of the festival highlights!

London-based jazz vocalist Vanessa Haynes impressed with her powerful voice.

London-based jazz vocalist Vanessa Haynes impressed with her powerful voice.

The festival recovered well on both days after the rain.  On the opening day, the powerhouse band Incognito, led by the charismatic guitarist/vocalist Jean Paul Maunick (aka Bluey) took charge and the delay was soon forgotten. Their three vocalists were good enough to each be lead singer in most bands. London-based vocalist Vanessa Haynes needs special mention; her voice was rather like an instrument in the style of late American jazz singer Sarah Vaughan. Their set was lively and very entertaining. Bluey also added an element of the dramatic by having four of his musicians exchange the instruments they were playing, halfway through their set.  This band has been around for 38 years and has imbibed and absorbed the sounds of this period – a combination of acid jazz, funk, R&B and blues and ultimately playing foot tapping music just right for dancing.

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The Australian band led by Andrew Oh (originally from Singapore) on saxophone, three brothers of Portugese origin, a Sri Lankan percussionist, a vocalist of Greek origin and a drummer, Buddy, originally from Samoa. This band played a short set on the second day as well during which drummer Buddy sang a James Brown song which could well have been sung by the composer himself!

Mud Morganfield, son of the ultimate blues great Muddy Waters, performed a set reminiscent of the master himself. While he sang originals adding typical ‘blues humor’ in the lyrics, Morganfield also sang some of his father’s notable songs. “Hoochie Coochie Man” was one such classic. Nothing satisfies like the blues.

The South African band Major Minor brought the  lilt and rhythm typical of  African music. Their trumpet player Mambo later also played a salutary muted passage while the images of recently departed musicians were projected on the screen. It was a beautiful gesture to have honored their contributions in a public music forum.

Marco Mendosa, El Trio low res

El Trio frontman Marco Mendosa who was on bass and vocals had an electrifying presence onstage.

We had a wonderful taste of a British band led by Kevin Davy on trumpet. They played a set of legendary American jazz trumpeter Miles Davis’ music from his brilliant acoustic years. Davy’s muted trumpet with the talented Oli Arlotti on saxophone whetted our appetites for more when rain cut short their performance. This was a pity because their playing was the stuff jazz buffs travel a long way to go and hear and their version of “Stella by Starlight” was superb. We were told that the band would play a second set later. Alas! The weather gods had different ideas. 

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The surprise package at the festival was the El Trio from Los Angeles. The trio leader, Marco Mendosa on bass and vocals had an electrifying presence on the stage and the ever happy, smiling Sri Lankans danced away to every note from this band. Mendosa plays in several styles and is a musician worth checking out in these other avatars as well.

One understands that this Mercedes Benz Colombo Jazz Festival is likely to expand in scope in the future. They certainly have their basics covered and one can only get excited at the prospect of this region of the world becoming an important dot on the world map of jazz festivals in time to come.


All photographs courtesy of the Colombo Jazz Festival.

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