CQAF: Jazz Jamaica

Much lauded skazz outfit get the Festival Marquee jumping

In 2007, Ska Cubano brought a fresh, new mix of Cuban mambo and Caribbean ska to the 8th Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival Marquee in Belfast's Custom House Square. 

One year on and Europe’s most accomplished purveyors of the skazz sound, the London-based Jazz Jamaica take up the baton, tackling a set of popular Jamaican classics and old-school dancehall favourites in their own jazztastic manner.

Outside, the sweet smell of summer makes one exceedingly giddy. The new bar bustles with eager punters intent on further intoxication and two hours after the 8pm opening time, the band take to the stage.

Formed by double-bassist Gary Crosby in 1992, the multi-award winning Jazz Jamaica are a British-Jamaican hybrid that come into their own on nights like this, performing for a crowd who know their stuff musically (the sheer amount of Jamaican tricolour garments and nerd-boy music history chatter are proof if proof was needed), and fancy an upbeat night on the dance floor.

The sparkling-star Marquee ceiling provides the perfect setting for this polished collection of jazz maestros. After their introduction - nowhere near as exciting as last year's - Jazz Jamaica unleash their Tighten Up! set with horns a-tooting and knees a-swaying. The punters shake their money-makers from the first note, the band supported by an eager entourage of funky Anglo-Caribbean females.

Following their highly successful Motorcity Roots tour, which applied the skazz philosophy to the Motown back catalogue, Tighten Up! takes the band back to their Jamaican roots.

With trombones, trumpets, sax, guitar and piano in full swing, we’re treated to a set that includes songs from the likes of Jamaican legends Skatalites, Prince Buster and Guns of Navarone, amongst others. Solos punctuate verse and chorus throughout, with alto-sax expert Andre Brown and pianist Ben Burrell marking themselves out as a particularly talented duo in an immensely talented ensemble.

But it’s guitarist Femi Temowo who steals the show. Wielding a big, chunky Gibson ES-335 (one for the aforementioned nerd-boys there!), the peerless Temowo’s improvisational skill is, frankly, astonishing. All subsequent solos leave one distinctly underwhelmed.

The critics have taken this nine-piece outfit to their hard hearts, with the Guardian going so far as to label them Britain’s answer to the Buena Vista Social Club. 

Their fusion of jazz and rock steady is thrilling, their virtuosity captivating, their stage presence convincing. And yet I’m left frustratingly bored after a while. I’ve been entertained, and lost a few pounds on the dancefloor. But Jamaican music, for me, is all about simplicity. In the end, there are only so many solos one can take. 

Lee Henry