Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 17 January 2019

The highs and lows of 2015’s Dubai Jazz Festival

John Legend stole the headlines, Sting proved why he's really the legend, and James Blunt served up more sentimental schmaltz.
James Blunt performing on the first day of Dubai Jazz Festival. Satish Kumar / The National
James Blunt performing on the first day of Dubai Jazz Festival. Satish Kumar / The National

This year’s Dubai Jazz Festival contained plenty of highs (and not many lows).

Wednesday: James Blunt

There were some who groaned when they heard that Dubai Jazz Fest – hardly a purist’s paradise at the best of times – had booked Marmite troubadour James Blunt to perform for the third time in six years. Notably, his opening-night show was the only one not to sell out well in advance – though it was on a Wednesday, to be fair.

No one has ever stood at a piano and looked cool. Yet this is how Blunt begins his set, lurching into Face the Sun, a mildly stomping rocker. But then James Blunt isn’t cool. When he straps on an electric guitar and hollers: “You’re in Dubai baby!”, it screams accountant, not rock star.

He’s not cool – but he knows his craft. The 41-year-old Brit shrewdly structures his schmaltz, mixing flavours old and new, and fast and slow. The crowd unites for his two name-making hits from the 2004 LP Back to Bedlam, Goodbye My Lover and, of course, You’re Beautiful – once voted the most irritating song of all time.

Blunt encored with his two remaining radio anthems, Bonfire Heart and 1973.

“Shukran, Dubai – see you soon,” says Blunt, leaving the stage. We’ll give it two years.

With support from …

Christina Perri: This was a tried-and-tested pairing, with the American singer-songwriter getting her big break supporting “Blunty” on tour in 2012. Parading on stage in a High School Musical-style white blouse and glittery tights get-up, Perri opened her set with a solo piano version of her breakout hit, Jar of Hearts. Best received were the 2013 hit Human, and a surprise cover of Coldplay’s A Sky Full of Stars.

Thursday: Sting

Sting can’t be accused of treading water in his comfort zone. The last few weeks have seen the man born Gordon Sumner continue a 14-month joint-­headline tour alongside fellow rock ­legend Paul Simon – a fascinatingly odd couple – and star on Broadway in his own poorly received musical The Last Ship, which sank and closed early.

Dubai, then, was a chance for the former frontman of The Police to step back into his old hit-shaped boots, relax and enjoy the songwriting riches of the legacy he has carved out over almost four decades.

Sporting impressively tight jeans, an even tighter blue T-shirt and a substantial beard strangely reminiscent of Tom Hanks in Cast Away, Sting opened as he did in Abu Dhabi two years ago, with a handclapping rendition of If I Ever Lose My Faith, before stadium-sized versions of Englishman in New York and Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic, and the anthemic singalong Fields of Gold.

Much of the familiar material was extended, contorted and rearranged to add fresh breakdowns, bridges and solos. The reason Sting still enjoys playing these hits may be because they are subject to a continuous evolution and reinterpretation.

The biggest crowd-pleasers were inevitably The Police songs – an angsty Driven to Tears, Walking on the Moon, the perfect pop of Message in a Bottle and set-closer Roxanne, which broke down into a deep dub groove and medleyed into Bill Withers’s Ain’t No Sunshine (and back again).

Sting left the stage for a second time after an obligatory Every Breath You Take. But if one detected a slight weariness in that stalkers’ anthem, he more than made up for it with an unexpected second encore, closing – as he did in Abu Dhabi – by picking up an acoustic guitar for the minimally backed ballad, Fragile, a beautiful, stark song with a universally understood message.

With support from …

“If you haven’t figured out what I do yet, I’m a dancing violinist,” said opening act Lindsey Stirling, a couple of tunes in. “And if you’re expecting me to sing … I’m a dancing violinist.”

That she is. The former America’s Got Talent contestant leapt around the stage like a hyperactive teenager. And she played violin, attacking her instrument with squealing runs over an incongruous background of pounding electronic beats and theatrically swelling strings and synths.

It was the audio equivalent of watching The Dubai Fountain. Again and again and again …

Friday: John Legend

There has never been a more pertinent time to see John Legend. Last Sunday, he won an Oscar for the Selma theme, Glory, and used his acceptance speech to make an impassioned political plea that made headlines around the globe.

Just five days later, Legend took to the stage to close the Dubai Jazz Festival, his first live gig since the win. Fate? Luck? A smart booking? We’re just glad he showed up.

Channelling the soul legends that inspired his stage name, Legend strode onstage in a hip blue suit and buttoned-up flower shirt to launch into the single Made to Love. Next came a roaring attack on Curtis Mayfield’s Hard Times, and a ballad version of Tonight (Best You Ever Had), formally a mid-tempo R&B groove with Ludacris.

“Love is in the air tonight,” yelled Legend. It’s certainly his main source of lyrical inspiration. In an era when sleaze dominates music, Legend makes seduction sound romantic and respectful – a charming ladies’ man with twinkly eyes. While he cheekily preached discreet encounters in PDA (We Just Don’t Care), by The Beginning he was sticking round to build a family (“Pick some names, boy or girl”).

His band were phenomenal, a socking seven-piece, packing punchy brass, plus an additional two backing singers. They set the space on fire with the disco-flavoured Green Light and rousing Save the Night.

But the biggest reaction came when Legend sat solo at his grand piano, for the affecting Ordinary People, and a soulful cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water.

The smouldering Who Do We Think We Are and You and I (Nobody in the World) were transformed into intimate, jazz-bar ballads. “It’s important to make time for date night,” he said. “I know some of you are on date night tonight.” Looking at the swelling sea of happy faces, he wasn’t wrong.

Closing with a Caught Up sing­along and a rousing So High, Legend was utterly convincing. In an era where appropriation of the past is so wanton and commonplace, Legend stands out. Immune to trend, doing what he does – writing and singing classic-sounding soul and R&B – because that’s what he does best.

Of course, there was one song he hadn’t played yet. Legend returned for the expected encore – but this All of Me was a new, Arabian-­flavoured arrangement, premiered alongside its creator, the Lebanese producer Jean-Marie Riachi.

With support from …

There may be a trumpet on the Dubai Jazz Festival logo, but it was day three before we saw one on stage, backing Esperanza Spalding.

Flitting between upright and fretless electric bass, the jazz-crossover star showcased an astounding dexterity, leading a staggeringly tight ­seven-piece band through her knotty, inventive tracks.

Mid-set Legend tweeted a picture from the side of the stage, saying Spalding “sounded so lovely”. Better than lovely, Spalding was brilliant. Playing almost exclusively from 2012’s Radio Music Society, the 30-year-old talent dazzled with Cinnamon Tree, Crowned & Kissed and Black Gold.


Updated: February 28, 2015 04:00 AM