Vaughnette Bigford, forever in my mind, a SONGBIRD, delivered a magnum opus with her sold-out production “Shades of Vaughnette: The concert experience” at the Naparima Bowl in San Fernando, Trinidad and Tobago that can serve as a template for singers and performers here in these islands. Her song list touched Nat ‘King’ Cole and Bob Marley, and ranged from torch songs and jazz standards made popular by Nancy Wilson (An Older Man Is Like An Elegant Wine), Abbey Lincoln (Long as You’re Living) to international hits originally sung by Miriam Makeba (Soweto Blues) and Tania Maria (Yatra Ta). It even included enough local compositions by Andre Tanker, ‘Nappy’ Meyers and Ras Shorty I to make this reviewer happy, but I err on the side of caution when I sit in an audience of fans, happily, whose body language suggests that we need to listen to a lot more music from any and all genres.
Audiences are hard to please, and the suspension of belief that an entertainer takes when confronting an audience that generally gravitates towards a handful of songs and memories of songs of others, makes song choice difficult. Very accessible music like Randy Crawford’s “One Day I’ll Fly Away” is a crowd-pleaser, but the more esoteric song choices like “Yatra Ta” by Tania Maria are applauded with respect at musicianship and obligation suggesting at not knowing how to react. I heard an audience member commenting, “when will she sing songs that I know?” To cringe at the indiscipline of the audience is faux elitism. I understand, but I refuse to pander to nostalgia and escapism. Behave and learn. However, to know one’s place in an auditorium of folks looking to be entertained after restrictive curfew limitations have been recently lifted is to be part of the joy of sharing in great talent.
This is an artist who can make it anywhere. Tone, beauty, presence. The definition of the New World African. The Latin American songbook was but another page in the wider canon of jazz standards that she has already mastered. Brazil and Columbia, Portuguese and Spanish; so what! Full disclosure: I, as part of the company Production One Ltd. hired Vaughnette back in November 2009 to perform at our annual SONGBIRDS…live™ series, then at AURA Restaurant. She was a star in my mind. She acknowledged then that the show was her first solo show in Port of Spain. I have since felt an affinity to this superbly talented singer who has boldly wandered the jazz and music spaces on the U.S. East coast from Boston to New York, Berklee to the Blue Note, absorbing the knowledge and skill necessary to make it there. I am proud to say she has improved, and we in Trinidad and Tobago should notice this rising talent and follow her trajectory.
A suggested course would be to eschew the American jazz songbook for a palette of Caribbean song. Her ventures into the world of Billie, Ella and Nancy, and even into the Latin American songbooks had less impact with her Naparima Bowl audience than her interpretations of the songs of Ray Holman and Ras Shorty I (Garfield Blackman), masterfully arranged by Ming and Theron Shaw with Vaughnette respectively. While some connoisseurs would wince at the removal of almost every ounce of calypso from the latter two songs, the exposure of the local canon to the rigours of jazz improvisation showcases a new breed of song and songwriter to the world. While I would not want to thrust the “ambassador for local music” title on Vaughnette’s shoulders, this path could offer enough differentiation from the plethora of jazz chanteuses graduating annually from music colleges and conservatories in the United States, yet who still can’t make a dent in the music industry beyond small gigs that pay the bills, and furthermore, not make the statement that Caribbean musicians and artistes are wont to do. Context is the decider. Here or there? Artist or entertainer? Who do you please, yourself or the paying audience? Vaughnette is at a point of material decision.
Excellence is a word that is bandied about often with little effect. Centre of Excellence comes to mind. Yet, in this context, words must be set aside for the production team of Arthur Lewis, Marva Newton and Shurlan Griffith. The general aesthetic of the stage show was enough to satisfy this reviewer that standards for solo productions can and have been set higher. The band, with musical director Theron Shaw (guitar) and featuring Caribbean music icons Frankie McIntosh of St. Vincent (keys), and Boston-based Ron Reid (bass) along with Anthony Woodroffe, Jr. (reeds), Modupe Onilu (percussion) and David Richards (drums) reinforces a point Vaughnette made to me back at our SONGBIRDS…live™ show, that she would not be complete without her perfect band which must include the aforementioned foreign-based musicians. That night, Vaughnette was completed. Sublime duets with Frankie and also Theron, a frenetic scat workout on Tania Maria’s gem, a calypso duet with the great Lord Superior. The spirits of Ella, Billie, Betty Carter and most significantly for me, Nina Simone were sated. Their work is done. The template was set, and here in Trinidad and Tobago, a new star has arisen to continue the journey.
Long as You’re Living – famously sung by Abbey Lincoln
Willow weep for me – performed by a plethora of singers from Billie, Ella, Nina, to Diana Krall
Chovendo Na Roseira – Antonio Carlos Jobim – Brazil
An Older Man Is Like An Elegant Wine – sung by Nancy Wilson (duet with Frankie)
The Very Thought Of You – sung by, among others, Ella, Billie, Nat and Sinatra (duet with frankie)
One Day I’ll fly away – sung by Randy Crawford
Michael Jackson – Lord Superior guest performance (irony, humour, kaiso!)
San Fernando Carnival – Lord Superior guest performance
Elevate the Woman – Duet with Lord Superior (a smut that escaped a number of audience members)
Who God Bless – Ras Shorty I (with Ron and Theron)
Yatra Ta – Tania Maria – Brazil
Pan on the Move – Ray Holman – Band Song
Canción en sol – Marta Gómez – Columbia (with Theron, David, Ron and Modupe)
Memory of Your Smile – Ray Holman (with Ming)
Soweto Blues – Miriam Makeba – South Africa
Waiting in Vain – Bob Marley
Here and Now – Andre Tanker
Old time Days – Nappy Meyers
© 2011 Nigel A. Campbell. All Rights Reserved.