Tuesday, June 27, 2017
   
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Fried crickets and jazz in an idyllic island paradise...

A Jazz Festival on the beautiful island of St Lucia makes a convert out of PATRIC BAIRD...

THE late, great, rock guitarist Frank Zappa once said: "Jazz is not dead - it just smells funny". Rather like myself, I assume he wasn't a particular fan of the genre, although after accepting an invitation to attend the annual St Lucia Jazz Festival last year, I found myself rather looking forward to going.

I had decided that I was more than happy to put up with subjecting my ears to what I assumed would be a lot of freeform musical ramblings by a bunch of superannuated hep cats, in exchange for a stay on such a beautiful Caribbean island. After all, I could always bring along ear plugs and a good book, just in case the entertainment became a little bit tiresome.

As the day of departure drew closer, I feared that my indifference had possibly upset the jazz gods, although several silent prayers to Miles Davis were apparently answered as my flight to St Lucia from Gatwick Airport with Virgin Atlantic was able to depart during a 24-hour window in 2010's infamous ash cloud.

I was still counting my blessings and offering thanks to every long-departed jazz musician I could think of as the plane touched down in a hot and steamy St Lucia. Waiting by the luggage carousel, it hit home that, for the next ten days, the Jazz Festival was going to be the hottest ticket in town as, in addition to the usual suitcases and backpacks tumbling onto the revolving belt, there were numerous odd-shaped containers which obviously held saxophones, double basses, clarinets and other necessary implements for making music.

During the flight, I had a chance to peruse the line-up of the upcoming musical events and it soon became clear that, rather like anything else with such a long and rich history, jazz comes in many and varied forms.

In fact, I was surprised by the musical diversity of artists who would be appearing, many of whom I would certainly not have associated with jazz in any shape or form, including Leeds-born singer Corinne Bailey Rae, Mr Boombastic a.k.a. Shaggy and contemporary pop and R&B artist Ne-Yo, all of whom were the headline acts at the main evening open air events at the historic Pigeon Island National Park, with the stage sited close to the remains of an 18th century British fort.

As it turned out, Saint Lucia Jazz (to give the festival it's proper title) encompasses multiple shows of acoustical/straight ahead jazz, new age jazz, fusion, rhythm and blues with acts emanating from the United States, Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America and Europe.

The shows range from formal performances to intimate late night open air venues and late night club venues to open air picnic style events, which allows Saint Lucia Jazz to offer unparalleled variety and ambience. So plenty to keep even the most anti-jazz die-hard entertained, yet perfect for jazz aficionados of every hue.

The event has an interesting history, beginning in 1992 as a relatively small, poorly attended affair spread across only four small venues and featuring a narrow, purely jazz-oriented line-up. However, by 1994, the organisers had hit upon a winning formula - a well-thought out mix of acoustical and fusion jazz, blended with reggae and R&B, extended the event's appeal. With the recent development of a 'fringe', this mix has been enhanced, shifting Jazz from a nucleus of small hotel and club venues to a world-famous 10-day event that covers the entire island. It has been ranked as the second-biggest Caribbean festival, and festival mogul George Wein has placed it among the top 5 festivals in the world.

As well as attending all of the major festival events at Pigeon Island, I spent several pleasant afternoons at Derek Walcott Square for the open-air Jazz On The Square sessions and managed to catch an evening performance at indoor venue Gaiety on Rodney Bay by electric-violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, who had appeared on Frank Zappa's 1971 album Hot Rats.

I'm not sure if Frank would have approved of all that jazz or not, but of course it's not just jazz which the relatively tiny island of St Lucia has to offer - beautiful scenery comprising lush rain forests as well as banana, mango and sugar plantations vital for the local rum industry, fabulous resorts and hotels, in addition to a vibrant and unique island culture are all added attractions for the thousands of visitors who flock from all over the world.

At my hotel, Sandals Grande in Castries, as a singleton I felt slightly out of place as loved-up couples were in the majority, many of whom are the freshest possible newlyweds, having just taken advantage of the resort's wedding package. Although honeymooners and those wishing to simply renew their vows would have to look long and hard for a more romantic location anywhere in the world.

For those seeking adventure and an adrenaline rush beyond the bedroom, the Babonneau Zip-Wire experience is guaranteed to leave a lasting impression. As someone whose idea of an extreme sport is crossing a busy road, I took some convincing to be clipped into a harness before embarking on an aerial tour of a rain forest, with only fresh air between me and the sheer drop to the forest floor.

I also had to be convinced that signing a waiver form was a mere formality but, as it turned out, that was the scariest part of the experience. I'm proud to say that I completed the circuit with flying colours (much to the surprise of my fellow zip-wirers, and mine) and actually rather enjoyed it as well!

No visit to St Lucia is complete without a trip to the Pitons - the island's famous pair of awe-inspiring, extinct volcanoes which tower over the south-western coast, emerging from the cobalt-coloured sea and lush, green vegetation near the town of Soufrière and which are listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

Nestling between the Pitons at Sugar Beach is the magnificent Jalousie Plantation hotel, one of the most luxurious resorts on the island. I spent the last night of my stay here in one of the hotel's villas, a self-contained suite decorated in vintage French-Caribbean style, complete with an opulent bedroom, a separate sitting room and an expansive sun terrace with its own plunge pool.

After sipping cocktails in the hotel's contrastingly cool and modern Cane Bar, dinner was served al fresco on the terrace of the Great Room, Jalousie's signature restaurant and I was entertained by the hotel manager's stories of how the former owner Lord Glenconner's pet elephant used to roam the grounds of the hotel.

While packing for the flight home, I came across a pair of earplugs, still sealed in their wrapper and a good book which hadn't been disturbed during my entire stay on this veritable jewel in the Caribbean crown.

Factbox:

Sandals Grande Resort, St Lucia - for details on wedding and honeymoon packages, visit www.sandals.co.uk

The Jalousie Plantation - visit www.jalousieplantation.com for more information on room rates and facilities

Virgin Atlantic flies to St Lucia from London Gatwick - visit www.virgin-atlantic.com for latest fare offers and timetable details

For all other information about St Lucia, visit the St Lucia Tourist Board's website at www.stlucia.org. St Lucia Jazz, www.stluciajazz.org

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