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Live Reviews

Bangkok Jazz Festival 2006

By Published: January 1, 2007

Hiromi is simply staggering, and her two-handed wizardry and sheer bouncing energy brought gasps of astonishment and whoops of admiration from the crowd.

Bangkok Jazz Festival
Sanam Suepa
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.

The surprise package of the day and indeed the entire festival was Jazz Kamikaze, a group of twenty-something musicians from Scandinavia who were the winners of the Young Nordic Jazz Contest 2005. They blew everyone away with their high energy, high decibel performance. Imagine Acoustic Ladyland meets EST and you will have some idea of what this band sounded like.

Marius Neset's tenor sax and Daniel Davidsen's guitar screamed together on "Rastapopoulos while Kristor Brodsgaard's bass and Anton Eger's drums drove the music at a furious pace. Their set consisted of originals except for Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit. There is more, however, to this band than bombast, as seen on pianist Morten Schantz's melancholic "Gina" and the encore "Until The Sun Comes," a slow- building epic of tremendous grandeur. Jazz Kamikaze seemed to enjoy their performance as much as the audience did. A talented group of musicians that seems poised for great things in the near future.

After the sonic assault of Jazz Kamikaze, Lisa Ono's brand of gentle bossa nova and country tunes was like bathing in warm milk. A trio of bossa nova classics opened the set, followed by "Country Road (almost as much an anthem in Thailand as "Hotel California ), "Jambalya," "C'est Si Bon and the encore "Girl From Ipanema. A set largely devoid of surprise, or even a shift in gears, nevertheless delighting the partisan crowd.

What's in a name? Evidently little, as twenty five years later the Yellowjackets are playing to appreciative audiences all over the world, having moreover just released their twentieth album.

On Saturday night Bangkok was treated to nearly two hours of fine musicianship from the headliners. Bassist Jimmy Haslip excelled throughout the course of the evening, particularly on "Out Of Town and the classic "Jacketown. Bob Mintzer, who has done as much as either pianist Russell Ferrante or Haslip to shape the direction and define the sound of the band over the last fifteen years, drew huge applause, whether on tenor sax or EW1. Drummer Marcus Baylor played probably the best drum solo of the entire weekend on "Out Of Town and impressed during the concert for his drive and precision.

Individually, the four members of the Yellowjackets are outstanding musicians, but the real strength of the band is in their collective playing, honed to perfection after so many years playing together. The band encored with the feel-good "Revelation, sending the crowd home happy. Here's to another twenty-five years.

The final day didn't quite live up to the previous two. Guitarist Jiraphan Ansvananda, a veteran of the Thai music scene, veered towards the type of pop so loved in Thailand. And despite some fine guitar work, and an appearance by Koh Mr. Saxman, who displayed his chops on a couple of numbers, the concert was an anti-climax after the fireworks of Hiromi on day one and the east-west fusion triumph of Asia Beat Project on day two.

The festival organizers should be encouraged to include Thai jazz talent, of which there is plenty, and it might have been a productive idea to present the winners of the previous week's national Jazz Talent competition if only to give them the type of exposure and jump-start which a festival like this can.

For guitar aficionados, the Asia Super Guitar Project did not disappoint. Eugene Pao from Hong Kong, Jack Lee from South Korea, and Kazumi Watanabe from Japan represent the cream of Asia's guitarists. Three electric guitars might sound like a recipe for a sonic nightmare, but they managed not to get in each other's way and varied the pace and intensity of the set very expressively.

Astor Piazzola's "Libertango was a highlight of the show, and Watanabe's original "Azimuth, on which he soloed in wild and very personal fashion, demonstrated why he is so highly regarded throughout Asia.

Dave Grusin doesn't tour much these days so for his loyal fan-base in Thailand it was a treat to see him playing in a trio context. After a dancing version of "Autumn Leaves he was joined by Lee Ritenour, and the two-some played the catchy "South West Passage. A couple of Antonio Carlos Jobim tracks, "Double Rainbow and "Stoneflower, were impressive, featuring solos by both the pianist and guitarist.

Grusin then slowed things down with a solo piano recital based on music from his soundtrack to the film "Milagros Beanfield Wars," centering on three Spanish-flavored pieces, all lyrical and slightly melancholic. The enjoyable set concluded with Grusin's classic "Mountain Dance from 1978 and the funky "Serengeti Walk.

After a short interval the 4th Bangkok Jazz Festival concluded with an all-star jam led by Grusin, Ritenour and Bob Mintzer from the Yellowjackets.

In hindsight, the festival was well organized and well run. Turn-around between bands was fast, and the facilities within the grounds were excellent. Special mention should be made of the lighting company, Auvi Craft Co. Ltd, whose illuminations only added to the luster of the festival.

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