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Back Roads Beat

The Heights Of Nepal's Jazzmandu 2005

By Published: November 7, 2005
The festival's opening event was a first-ever "Jazz For The Next Generation" competition for musicians under 24 years of age, with the winning group getting to play during a series of concerts the following day at a plush golf resort - promoted as the festival's biggest event - plus learning at workshops with visiting bands. There were also gift certificates and other prizes for the top three finishers and, since only three of the five bands entered showed up, all took home something of value.

Performing first in the small garden/courtyard setting was Jocos, a guitar/bass/drums trio with little jazz experience. The group started playing three years ago, focusing mostly on blues and reggae, said guitarist Rabin Bishwakama.

"We were just learning music with the same teacher," he said. "We tried to see if we could play together."

Jocos finished last in the competition after playing a couple of instrumental blues jams, a slow vocal blues and a mid-paced reggae song that, candidly, possessed the simplicity of players who know the basics getting together for a garage jam. But Bishwakama, speaking before the event, didn't seem to care too much about what they might win.

"We can just interact with the artists," he said. "That is a really great prize."

They were followed by Karma Avalanche, a quintet playing tunes more reminiscent of classic instrumental rock by Eric Clapton or the Eagles than Monk or Marsalis. Their soloing, mostly by guitarist Bibhusan Basnet and keyboardist Abhisek Bhadsa, relied largely on repeating riffs, but the crowd was responsive and as a group they possessed a tightly controlled sound full of energy thanks to a strong foundation from drummer Allan Shrestha.

Basnet said they typically play "underground" rock gigs where crowds are "bigger and badder." But they were impressive enough for the judges to name them the winner.

"They were trying to do some improvisation and technically what they were doing was more accomplished," said Tom Gravlie, director of International Affairs for Rikskonsertene, a Norway organization involved in a jazz-centered cultural exchange project with Nepal and several other countries. The other judges were the members of the Norwegian organ trio Solid, a featured performer throughout the festival.

The third youth group was In Between, an electric guitar/bass/drums/vocal group performing mostly hard rock/blues with some decent in-the-chordal lines soloing by guitarist Prashauf Gurang. Vocalist Diwas Mayur said they didn't come with a jazz mindset ("actually, we thought it was a blues competition," he said). But Gravlie said given the wide reach of jazz from traditional to electronica laced with classical influences, they and the other groups weren't necessarily out of place at the competition.

"That is a difficult question," he said. "What is jazz?...If it's blues, if it's fusion, what's most important is it's good music."

Solid played one song on instruments borrowed from the bands while the the votes were being tallied and from the opening bars they clearly showcased jazz on a much higher level. Guitarist Bjorn Solli's bluesy solos went beyond the scale lines and got interactive rather than passive rhythm support. Keyboardist Daniel Formo's riffs served merely as glue between complex chordings and tonal shadings. Drummer Håkon Mjåset Johansen's solo featured extensive stick clicking, unconventional sounds from edge hits and a climax of technically accomplished speed rolls. The crowd responded in-kind, shouting for an encore, but time constraints denied them one as the band headed to a restaurant they were performing at that evening for a sound check (although it should be noted they were nursing beers an hour beyond the scheduled start time). The night performance was one of two restaurant shows - the other was Indian band Groove Suppa - and a look at some of their festival performances will be featured in coming updates.

Coming on Day 2: Burning and chilling at the main event.

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