x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Jason Mraz and James Morrison round up Dubai International Jazz Festival

The Dubai International Jazz Festival proved once again its pedigree as one of the biggest and eclectic musical events in the region.

caption@Jason Mraz performs at the Skywards Dubai International Jazz Festival.
caption@Jason Mraz performs at the Skywards Dubai International Jazz Festival.

After a rousing start to the Skywards Dubai International Jazz Festival last week, the festivities continued for a final weekend with another seamless blend of performances from the jazz, pop, blues and folk worlds.

The Scottish singer-songwriter Sandi Thom kicked off the second weekend on the Sub Stage on Thursday night. While an artist known for a track about her dream to be a punk rocker is an odd choice for a jazz festival, her sturdy set easily won over the crowd.

The tetchy Born in the Belly of the Blues made use of her smoky vocals while Runaway Train's rootsy stomp showed the songstress is comfortable with her new bluesy outlook, while unwittingly confirming the earlier press criticism that her hippy persona in previous albums was slightly contrived.

Next up was Spyro Gyra at the main stage – and the New York group performed a sterling one-hour showcase spanning selections from their near 30-year career.

Led by the affable saxophonist Jay Beckenstein, the group's song selection was as eclectic as the crowd, with styles encompassing Latin, Caribbean and African beats.

The group's eclectic muse has been subject to discussion by jazz aficionados throughout the years, with some labelling the group as straight jazz, while others describe them as a smooth jazz ensemble.

In the late 1970s, they were even considered a pop group, with tunes such as Morning Dance and Shaker Song riding high in the charts.

But Spyro Gyra's live sound is more raw, with more musical flavours added than their pristine-sounding recordings.

In De La Luz, the group playfully explored the Cuban roots of the guitarist Julio Fernandez. In Dancing on Table Mountain, they demonstrated their stylistic breadth, as Fernandez, Beckenstein and the keyboard player Tom Schuman injected groove and funk lines over the bassist Scott Ambush's Afro-rhythms.

In their classic Breakfast at Igor's the group's trademark fusion approach was at play with Schuman taking the lead, laying down some wonderful soul and gospel licks.

But the previously mentioned Morning Dance and Shaker Song received the biggest applause, with the audience rising to their feet and dancing along.

Saturday's international flavour continued with the headlining act Jason Mraz.

You can't blame the American's cheeky smile when walking on stage with the Iranian percussionist Mona Tavokoli. For one thing, unless you are a keen music observer, Mraz's rise to bona fide stadium filler took the world unawares. Since 2002, Mraz has beguiled listeners with three albums full of signature soft-rock songs brimming with wide-eyed optimism. While he could sound like aural wallpaper on record, Mraz is a charming performer live. It takes great stage presence to make a festival stage intimate and Mraz carried it off with aplomb.

The audience also had the first chance to test their vocal cords with the campfire singalongs of Lucky and his biggest hit I'm Yours.

After more than a week of super-polished instrumentation, the festival roughed things up for the final evening with Dirty Robbers and Brett Dennen.

The former UK group delivered a jaunty set of 1960s-inspired R&B and pop, influenced by the likes of Eddie Cochran and The Sonics.

Over on the main stage, the California folk artist Brett Dennen delivered one of the festival's most memorable performances.

Sometimes it's not about playing perfectly; instead sincerity, good humour and a lot of heart can do more to capture a crowd. This occurred when the 32-year-old singer suffered "a meltdown" during his performance of Sydney I'll Come Running in the middle of the show.

"I realised I was playing the song in the wrong key," he said sheepishly after halting the song in the second verse.

"Now there is no excuse for this kind of behaviour, you paid good money for this show, so gosh darn it, we will continue the song in the right key this time and I promise you it will be much better," Dennen said.

The end result was one of the night's biggest cheers which Dennen and his band maintained, charming audiences with his left-field songwriting recalling the African flavours of Paul Simon's Graceland.

The UK soul singer James Morrison proved he was a worthy candidate to close the festival.

Backed by a seven-piece band, Morrison delivered an uplifting set, with songs evenly lifted from his three albums. While his cracking band gave the big production numbers such as Up and Slave to the Music a majestic sweep, it was when Morrison broke it down to only his voice and the accompanying electric guitar or keyboards – such as in Right By Your Side and Broken Strings – that he justified his tag as the heir apparent to Joe Cocker or Rod Stewart.

With 27 performances spread over nine days, the jazz festival demonstrated once again its pedigree as one of the biggest and most eclectic musical events in the region. However, it is the festival's community heart that's responsible for its appeal. And with a group of eight-year-olds spotted energetically playing air saxophone to Spyro Gyra, you sense the festival's future is in good stead.

 

sasaeed@thenational.ae

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