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Jazz Royale Festival Bangkok, December 9-10

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At seventy six years of age Ahmad Jamal is playing as well and with as much energy as ever.
Jazz Royale Festival
Suanam Suapa, Bangkok
9-10 December 2006

"I'm ashamed of Thailand, Mr. Jitpleecheep confessed to me, crushing an empty beer can rather mournfully. It wasn't corruption and the as-yet-uninvestigated extra-judicial killings of two and a half thousand alleged drug dealers under the old regime of Prime minister Thaksin; nor was it the military coup which recently overthrew the government, or the nation's notorious flesh trade or the disappointing medals haul in the Asian games. The cause of Mr. Jitpleecheep's distress was that Kenny G was headlining The Jazz Royale Festival in honor of King Bhumibol's sixtieth anniversary on the throne—thus relegating McCoy Tyner, Ahmad Jamal, Nancy Wilson, Regina Carter and the Dizzy Gillespie All Star Big Band to mere supporting roles. Injustice it seems is everywhere.

The two-day festival, traveling to four cities in Thailand, was launched in Bangkok within the royal grounds of Sanam Suepa and to a full house. Both days in the City of Angels were kick-started by the Oriental Jazz Quartet featuring Cherryl Hayes. Originally from Indiana, Hayes has been Bangkok-based for a few years now and is something of a local star. Her fine backing band warmed up the crowd for a couple of numbers before Hayes took the stage—and proceeded to set it on fire. At least it would be fun to think that this was the case, and that the smoke billowing across the stage wasn't instead due to an electrical short. Fortunately, this was one fire that could be extinguished, permitting the group to get on with the show.

Their up-tempo set included a couple of compositions by King Bhumibol, tunes that delighted the crowd. Hayes herself possesses a soulful, blues-drenched voice of great strength and range, and it was heard to great effect on the set closer, the old Chicago blues number "(I'd Rather) Drink Muddy Water. In sum, a rousing opening and a great festival band that the crowd warmly appreciated.

After a very fast turn-around—although not fast enough to prevent the ludicrously inept emcee double-act from diminishing the impact of the opening act—the McCoy Tyner Trio graced the stage. That this trio included Eric Gravatt on drums and Eric Revis on double bass (taking a break from barnstorming the world with Branford Marsalis) made for a mouthwatering proposition.

From the opening "Angelina to the end of his set an hour later, Tyner demonstrated that there is really no one quite like him. His sound is instantly recognizable; the thunderous percussion of his left hand coming down on the keys like a hammer, right and left hand racing each other along the keys at breakneck speed.

Gravatt and Revis were hardly overshadowed, however, as galloping interplay characterized the ensemble's set; even for Duke Ellington's "In a Mellow Tone there was little taking the collective foot off the gas. The dynamic and dramatic innovations of Tyner, the chord clusters, the racing vertical lines, the tremendous crescendos, the legend—a well-deserved standing ovation.

It's too early to call Regina Carter a legend, but there seems little doubt that she will be both the inspiration for generations of jazz violinists to come and the yardstick by which they shall be measured. Her band opened with a rousing, swinging version of "Little Brown Jug," clarinetist Anthony Nelson (who impressed throughout the set) taking a particularly fine solo.

Carter wants to be part of great music and not just a virtuoso figurehead; witness the space she allows the other musicians to breathe and express themselves while she sits out or adds pinceladas of color. Her solos were neither too frequent nor too indulgent, and all the more striking as a result. She saved her spotlight for the band's final number, a heartfelt rendition of "I'll Be Seeing You with her most beautiful and lyrical solo the highlight of an altogether wonderful set.

Under the energetic guidance of leader Slide Hampton, the Dizzy Gillespie All Star Big Band gave a polished lesson in the art of large ensemble playing. Tadd Dameron's "Hothouse opened a robust set during which the solos were short and to the point and the band itself was the real star. James Moody and Claudio Roditi stepped into the spotlight on Gillespie's "Con Alma and left their respective signatures.

In a band boasting an embarrassment of riches it was Paquito D'Rivera who got the meatiest solos. On "I Remember Dizzy his distinctive clarinet cut through the big-band sound, and on "Manteca his sax wailed out of and above the ferociously swinging ensemble. The cherry on the cake was singer Roberta Gambarini, whose beautifully assured vocals added color and contrast. On "Moody's Blues," Jimmy Heath's tribute to James Moody, the band took up singing duties and echoed Gambarini's lines to the delight of the crowd. Oh for another hour of this!


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