THE DAILY STAR (
Monday, September 12, 2005 )
And Zouk Mikhael sang praise to the Lord
Gospel diva Liz McComb brings down the curtain on Liban Jazz 2005
By Jim Quilty
Daily Star staff
ZOUK MIKHAEL, Lebanon: Looking a little uncomfortable on her heels, a white-clad Liz McComb was led to her piano on Saturday evening by Liban Jazz organizer Karim Ghattas. He adoringly kissed her hand before leaving the stage, much as you might the feet of a statue of the Madonna.
The performer then turned to the audience and repeatedly said "Ana bhebkun!" ("I love you all!"). It took the audience a second to discern what she was saying, but her declarations provoked the desired applause. "That's what I wanna hear," she said dropping into position behind the piano.
It was an appropriate way to commence the final evening of this week-long festival. "Love," divine love for the most part, was a recurring theme throughout, as were "God," "Jesus" and so forth.
These themes may seem a trifle sectarian for a jazz gig but - as some of Saturday's audience seem to have been aware - McComb's music isn't exactly "jazz," elastic as that term has become over the years.
The Paris-based American singer finds her roots in gospel music but over the course of her career - her first album was released in 1987 - the music has incorporated elements of blues, soul, R&B, rock 'n' roll, pop and, yes, jazz.
The Liban Jazz show that her quartet carried off was straight-ahead gospel, occasionally swerving into blues, soul, and R&B. The evening started with original compositions but eventually slid toward the standards, several of which were are so universally recognized that many in the Lebanese audience were singing along.
McComb is a powerful and - as the program promised - generous musician. She belted out her first two tunes (gospel and gospel-inflected blues respectively) on solo piano. The strength of her voice and the energy and authority of her keyboard work belies any impression her entrance may have conveyed that she's an invalid.
Authority asserted, she was joined by her crew - "The Reverend" Harold T. Johnston (keyboards), Kermitt Damone Golden (bass guitar), and Larry Crockett (drums). These three well-oiled players are affable enough.
Johnston seems the best musician among them. For most of the show he sat behind a synthesiser and dished up well-paced Hammond-esque ornamentation to McComb's piano. When the singer asked him to accompany her on piano, however, he proved to have an attentive eye and a silky hand for jazz piano.
Liban Jazz denizens have characterized this opening year's audiences as "tepid." Saturday evening's (rather less-than-capacity) crowd was more or less receptive to McComb's skyward entreaties, though. Particularly enthusiastic were a phalanx of 20-40 adolescents in the cheap seats stage left.
They didn't look much like gospel aficionados but they were on their feet and squealing well before McComb reached the stage - making it difficult to tell whether their enthusiasms were fueled by anticipation of the featured act or the mix-mastery of DJ Ramsay. Perhaps it was the lubricants supplied by the on-site bars.
Their energetic exertions proved to be contagious. As the concert progressed the number of dancing-swaying people increased, seemingly prodded to their feet by McComb's insistent and oft repeated "Everybody say yes!"
During her tune "I Love You Better Every Day," McComb fell into repetitions of "God is Great. God is Good," then - in a measure of cultural sensitivity - "Allahu Akbar." Some in the audience smiled - "Allahu Akbar" not being a phrase that necessarily has much currency in Zouk - but evidently the "Allahu Akbar" business worked. By the 40th or 50th repetition, people were on their feet, clapping along to how great God is.
Whether you appreciate this sort of God-ful business or not, McComb has come by her spirituality honestly. The Cleveland, Ohio, native is the daughter of one of the few women ever to be promoted to a senior pastoral post in the Pentecostal Church. Not one of Lebanon's officially recognized sects, Pentecostalism is an ecstatic form of Protestant Christianity whose worshipping adherents have been known to fall into trance states, "speaking in tongues" and so forth - which some have noted is reminiscent of some sufi practices.
Though the audience greeted the up-tempo numbers with more energy, McComb's voice was at its most sensual during her ballads. She demonstrated this while performing a number of her own compositions. But the passion of her voice was most moving toward the end of the evening, when she turned her attention to the standards.
Her renditions of old war horses such as "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" and "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" were remarkable for their making their archaic sentiments seem alive and relevant.
She put a bit of effort into making the material accessible. In one instance her repeated phrase "Turned water into wine!" transformed into the inspired, "I heard he turned the water into wine here in Lebanon!" The Zouk Mikhael crowd replied as desired.
"Anybody needs a miracle tonight," she cried, "say yes!"
"Yes!" roared the crowd.
"Turned the water into wine in Lebanon," she repeats and off come her shoes so she can commence a jazz-blues-tarab on a theme of "Say Yes!"
Later, during one of her ballads, she stands, a hand raised heavenward, and cries: "For your love is better for the people in Palestine!"
The audience was silent. "For your love is better for the people in Israel!" A lonely woman clapped her approval. "For your love is better for the people in New Orleans!" Relieved, the audience applauded energetically.