Bangkok Jazz Festival
December 15-17, 2006
Coming just a week after Bangkok's first-rate Jazz Royale Festival with heavyweights such as McCoy Tyner and Ahmad Jamal, the 4th Bangkok Jazz Festival ran the risk of seeming tame by comparison. However, the success of the festival was assured by an eclectic mixture of music, which provided something for everyone, along with a number of memorable performances.
Although pianist Hiromi, bassist Tony Grey and drummer Martin Valihora were welcomed to the stage in silence (no emcee), it is fair to say that they quickly shook the apathy out of the crowd and exited an hour later to tumultuous applause.
"XYZ, recorded on the featured artist's appropriately titled debut Another Mind (Telarc, 2003), shattered the tranquility of the crowd like a sudden surge of water bursting through a dam and engulfing Bangkokers in the torrent of sound that is Hiromi, the Japanese piano prodigy who is as irresistibly energetic and charming as she is talented.
While Tony Grey anchored the trio, the interplay between Hiromi and drummer Martin Valihora was exciting and risk-laden, as improvisational music must be. Hiromi is an arresting sight; when banging the keys with her right fist, she might bring to mind a demented Italian civil servant stamping invoices.
On the lovely "Old Castle by the River, in the Middle of a Forest and on the set closer Love and Laughter, which incorporated more than a hint of Bob James' "Taxi," she reflected the influence of mentor Ahmad Jamal in her fresh harmonies and deft touch yet exceeded her teacher in terms of pianistic virtuosity. Technically, Hiromi is simply staggering, and her two-handed wizardry and sheer bouncing energy brought gasps of astonishment and whoops of admiration from the crowd. About her performance it's safe to say that Hiromi and company left an indelible stamp on those fortunate enough to be present.
As long ago as 1964, Downbeat jazz critic Leonard Feather chose Salena Jones as one of the female vocalists of the year, alongside Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald and Nancy Wilson. The Friday crowd gave Salena Jones their vote, too, judging from their receptiveness to her jazzy renditions of Lionel Ritchie's "Hello," Billy Joel's "Just The Way You Are," a lively version of "Every Breath You Take by the Police and a moving interpretation of "Everybody Hurts by R.E.M. Her easy style and warm delivery compensated for a vocal range which treads water in the lower registers, and the Bangkok crowd, who are familiar with her from previous visits, welcomed her back like a queen.
There was a tremendous rush to the front of the stage to photograph guitarist Lee Ritenour, a response indicative of his popularity in the entire Pacific Rim. Aided by Dave Grusin on keyboards, his laid-back sound on the opening numbers was pure Wes Montgomery. Ritenour and Grusin funked things up on an extended version of Bob Marley's "Get Up, Stand Up, which allowed plenty of room for soloing. "Rio Funk livened up the fans, although at times the gentle funk sounded too much like "Ladies' Night for comfort.
First night headliners Tower of Power were simply superb. Thirty eight years into their journey the band, led by original members Emilio Castillo and Stephen 'Doc' Kupka, had the energy and verve of an ensemble just starting out on the road. Although they paid homage to a legend in "Still Diggin' James Brown, the truth is that neither James Brown, nor Maceo Parker for that matter, can shake a stick at these masters of horn-driven soul- funk.
Special mention should be made of vocalist Larry Braggs, whose powerful singing was as defining a sound as the distinctive sound of the horns. His voice soared above the brass and was at the same time as soulful as Curtis Mayfield. By the end of the night the grounds of Sanam Suepa were a sea of dancing, grooving bodies roaring their approval of the irresistible music of Tower of Power.
Day two began with the Asia Beat Project, which fused traditional Thai instruments with Japanese flute, Indian percussion, and a western rhythm section led by drummer Lewis Pragrasam.
Californian John Kaisan Neptune, a master of the shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute), who has performed with Alex Acuna and the sorely missed Kenny Kirkland, combined with Wanmongkol Mangkornkrit on Khlui (Thai flute), to create wonderful harmonies together.
And when Narongrit Tosa-nga, an outstanding virtuoso on Ranad (Thai xylophone), and Vuthichai Jarungklin on Saw Duang (upright Thai fiddle) joined the party with the percussion bubbling away, the sophisticated playing and strong melodic content proved highly intoxicating.