Miri International Jazz Festival, May 14-15, Malaysia, Borneo
Opening with "Karuhun" from Demimasa (Moonjune Records, 2009) Arshad stirred up spacey sounds over a percussive wave which raced through the blood. The kendang played by Endang Ramdam and Erlan Suwardana seems like a hybrid African/Indian instrument; played sitting cross legged, the foot alters the pressure and the tone of the drum. On the powerful "Kemarau" there was a distinctly Indian quality to the two kendang during the blistering opening segment with Arshad's telegraph-like Rhodes riff charging the air. The gamelan gongs more commonly consist of between ten and twenty-four pieces, but metallophon percussionist Cucu Kurnia had only two, which he employed in a ceaseless pulse. In addition, Kurnia favored Ceng-Cengsmall overlapping cymbalsfor further rhythmic tonalities. The rhythm section was completed by Adhitya Pratama on electric bass, who brought a deep, quietly grooving bottom end to the music.
The complex rhythms, the unison playing between Tohpati's guitar and keyboard, and the atmospheric sound effects create a rich and dense sound, and the band always travel with their own sound engineer to ensure the mix is just right. The music and the mix was obviously appealing, as by the middle of the performance the area in front of the stage was a jungle of umbrellas as the rain continued to fall, though with less conviction than before.
The closing "Unfaded Hopes" was a slow piece in sharp contrast to the other numbers. This melancholy- tinged composition featured a fine extended solo from Tohpati, who rang Pat Metheny-like lines from his strings, softly as in a ballad at first and growing slowly to soar freely before returning to the beautiful melody, all the while accompanied by gently supportive kendang and gamelan. It was an emotive conclusion to the set. SimakDialog means "listen carefully to the dialogue" and what a wonderful dialogue it was.
A recurring topic of discussion in the press conferences at the start of each day and a subject of debate among the music journalists covering MIJF '10 was: what constitutes jazz these days? As the music spreads ever further around the globe, absorbing the rhythms and instruments of other nationsas indeed it has always doneit is a question which is becoming harder to answer, not that it was really ever that easy. Duke Ellington described his music as being in a constant state of becoming, which hints at the essence of jazz. He also suggested doing away with the term "jazz" as long ago as the 1920s, suggesting it be called Negro music, a moniker which obviously never stuck. Charles Mingus described his music as "Mingus music," and Ahmad Jamal refers to jazz as "American Classical Music." John Coltrane called it "universal music." Clouding the issue further still, Miles Davis announced in one of his final print interviews: "Jazz is dead."
So where does that leave us? Jazz is a myriad of styles from ragtime of the 1890s right up to the fusions of this decade. All the styles that have evolved over the last one hundred and twenty years have depended heavily on each other and borrowed liberally from the existing vocabulary. No wonder jazz is a difficult word to define; jazz is different things to different people. What is clear is that jazz is no longer the sole preserve of America; to suggest otherwise would be analogous to saying football is an English game. Jazz, like football is out thereit belongs to everybody. Maybe Eugene Ang from Mellow Motif was right when he stated: "I feel the question is irrelevant."
Nobody however, would have argued that the music of pianist Amina Figarova's sextet was anything other than jazz. Having studied classical piano in her native Azerbaijan, she moved to Europe and is now based in Holland where she has spent the last ten years leading a sextet which interprets her original compositions.
The opening number erupted in double time, with trumpeter Ernie Hammes and then Figarova taking exciting solos which spared nothing. The driving rhythm at the heart of the music, courtesy of bassist Sven Happel and animated drummer Chris "Buckshot" Strik was infectious. Flautist Bart Platteau, who impressed throughout the set, took a vivacious solo brimming with ideas which brought the sextet back to the head and out.