Jazz Royale Festival Bangkok, December 9-10
After Cherryl Hayes and the Oriental Jazz Quartet opened day two with the same energy and style as they had the previous day, it was time for another jazz legend to raise the bar. Ahmad Jamal, in the shadows, slipped almost unnoticed onto the stage, avoiding the spotlight and to sparse applause, while the emcee was still introducing him. The reception was almost a metaphor for his entire career. At seventy-six years of age Ahmad Jamal is playing as well and with as much energy as ever. Backed by stalwarts Idris Muhammad on drums and James Commack on double bass, the three instruments were set up as close together as possible, as though they were playing on a stage that was hardly big enough to accommodate them.
These three have been playing together now for so long that their interplay and mutual understanding is immense. It was fascinating to watch how closely Jamal observed his sidemen; when Commack soloed Jamal studied him as if for the first time; when Muhammad took over the steering, Jamal would turn half around, leaning back towards the drum kit whilst his right hand riffed or kept the melody flickering.
In an exhilarating set all the Jamal trademarks were therethe light, dancing right hand; the rumbling chords and thunderous crescendos; the slow wind-down to a song and the big, final note rammed home like a flagpole into the ground. And fifty years after he first played it, "Poinciana sounded fresh and vital as Jamal and company injected innovation and exciting improvisation. A mere one hour of one of the greatest jazz trios in the history of the music seemed like far too little.
Chris Botti is a better trumpet player than he is sometimes given credit for, particularly in a live context, although in a concert of just an hour he had little space to move beyond the ballads which his audience expects of him. "Flamenco Sketches and "My Funny Valentine, which came across as warm tributes to Miles Davis, seemed like obvious choices; "Cinema Paradiso by Andrea Morricone and "The First Noel perhaps less so. Leonard Cohen's "A Thousand Kisses Deep altered the mood of the set nicely and featured an arresting performance by Botti.
When Botti wasn't balladeering, his band really funked it up. Billy Childs on keyboards, Mark Whitfield on guitar and ex-Dave Holland drummer Billy Kilson all excelled while energizing the music along with the crowd. Kilson lashed his kit with discommunal enthusiasm and had to be pryed away to take part in the curtain call alongside his fellow band members in front of an appreciative crowd.
One of the highlights of the festival was the wonderful performance given by veteran singer Nancy Wilson. She opened briskly with Van Morrison's "Moondance and continued with a set of beautifully delivered numbers, pregnant with emotion but never overly sentimental. Her voice was strong and her phrasing perfect. "Never Will I Marry, which she recorded forty years ago with Cannonball Adderley, sounded utterly contemporary, and there are plans to re-record it next year with Tom Scott, Terence Blanchard, Marcus Miller and George Duke. The plethora of hopeful young singers these days could learn a lot from Nancy Wilson. She runs rings around all of them.
And so to the headliner. I had persuaded Mr. Jitpleecheep to stay for Kenny G, which he did reluctantly, offering me a beer. What is it they say about the relationship between the jailor and the jailed? Kenny G took an awfully long time to join his band on stage. The reason, it soon became apparent, was because he was walking through the crowd, playing his way into everyone's heart.
Stopping to mount a podium where he played the world's longest sustained note, G next joined his band on stage. For two hours he thrilled his devotees with his spoken Thai, the King's compositions and his own, and not a little showmanship. He displayed some very fast runs, played "What A Wonderful World to a video of Louis Armstrong, and sent the vast majority of the crowd home with beaming smiles and clutching Kenny G CDs.
At the end of two days of mostly wonderful music, Mr. Jitpleecheep was unrepentant in his stinging criticism of the festival organizers. I reminded him that in England for Queen Elizabeth's fiftieth anniversary they had placed a guitarist on top of Buckingham Palace to play "God Save The Queen, based on the rather flimsy premise that he had once played in a band called Queen. There was no McCoy Tyner that day, no Ahmad Jamal, no Nancy Wilson, no Regina Carter, no James Moody no Slide Hampton no Roy Hargrove, no Roberta Gambarini and no Paquito D'Rivera.
Thank the stars that King Bhumibol of Thailand is a jazz fan. Thank the stars.