By Dwight Brown, Entertainment Critic
She started off with a bang!
The 2023 Blue Note Jazz Festival takes place all over New York City, from May 31st to July 2nd. From the Blue Note’s iconic Greenwich Village jazz club (Ron Carter’s Foursight Quartet) to Summer Stage in Central Park (Buddy Guy), BRIC in Brooklyn (Anderson Paak, Robert Glasper) and Manhattan’s Hammerstein Ballroom, former site of the Metropolitan Opera Company. Hammerstein kicked off the fest with the diva of divas, Grace Jones.
A scheduled start time of 8 pm was laughable, considering Jones’s penchant for being late. And, not feasible when literally thousands of fans had to be screened before entry into the 12,000 sq ft venue. A gigantic dance floor is the centerpiece. A big, wide stage is in the front of the cavernous room, with boxed seating on the sides and two balconies in the back. Thousands of concert goers stood body-to-body on the floor, drinks in hand, swaying to piped-in music as they waited and waited. At 9:35 pm, the sheer lavender curtains rose to reveal a rock/soul/reggae band. Jones’s distinct contralto voice filled the ballroom, as she sang her hit “Night clubbing.”
Jones purred the lyrics: “Nightclubbing, we’re nightclubbing. We’re what’s happening. Nightclubbing, we’re nightclubbing. We’re an ice machine. We see people, brand new people. They’re something to see. Nightclubbing, we’re nightclubbing.Oh, isn’t it wild?” The time spent waiting for her evaporated and was a distant memory. The audience was fully engaged by the performance. They were into her entrancing vibe. Snared. Enraptured.
The dark stage shadowed the band. The lights focused on a white, billowing pillar in the back that shot up 20 feet into the air. Square on the bottom, tapering as it went up to an object at the top. So where was Jones’ voice coming from? Where? She was perched on the crown of the column like a gargoyle. Singing like the ‘80s and ‘90s never ended. After she finished the opening song, and came down to earth, courtesy of a hydraulic lift, she lamented to the crowd about life during COVID. The pandemic had stalled an upcoming tour and kept her away from her fans.
She sang “My Jamaican Guy” gyrating like a cross between a stripper and a cat in heat. Rocked out to “Demolition Man,” by banging on two symbols, then like a true rock star kicked one over. She amazed everyone when she said, “I just saw ghosts. I see them all the time.” Then started an acappella version of “Amazing Grace,” as if she was placating the spirits and shoring up her place in heaven. She encouraged the audience to sing along. The hushed hall chanted: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me…” It seemed to cleanse everyone’s soul. Grace praised her thousand-person choir: “I feel like you sent me a sea of love.”
After she sang “Love is the Drug,” and before she launched into the rousing club hit “Pull Up to the Bumper,” she revealed her workout routine: “When I go to the gym, I do a lot of squats. I sexercise!” The whole hall erupted with laughter. Jones got on a security guard’s shoulders, as he walked into the crowd. She shook hands, high-fived and bellowed: “Pull up to my bumper baby. In your long black limousine.”
That song was galvanizing, but not nearly as stunning as Jones singing her bit hit “Slave to the Rhythm.” She spun a hula hoop—non-stop without dropping it. Prancing, posing and waving her hands in the air while she sang. She was being acrobatic and that vision of her with that lit-up hoop gyrating around her waist was the evening’s most indelible spectacle. Did someone fail to tell her that she’s 75 years old? Or is defying the aging process just part of her act?
Umpteen costume changes later, after crawling across the stage, blowing kisses and some very provocative dancing, she ended the show with her latest hit “Hurricane:” “I am woman. I am sun. I can give birth to she. I can give birth to son. And I can be cool, Soft as the breeze. I’ll be a hurricane, ripping up trees.”
The 2023 Blue Note Jazz Festival started with an explosion. A rebirth. A phoenix rising from the ashes. Jones will tour Great Britain this summer and return for a September concert at Forest Hills Stadium in New York. Anyone who sees this style icon/performance artist will discover that her club style, avant-garde songs from back in the day are au courant now.
Grace Jones is soft as a breeze and ripping up trees.