Penang Island Jazz Festival: Malaysia, December 2-5, 2010
Two of Penang's most famous musical sons, vocalist Ray Rozells and pianist James Boyle joined the orchestra for a couple of numbers, providing an historical link to the development of popular music in Penang in the '40s. Their respective fathers, Joe Rozells, who led the Hawaiian Palm Beach Boys in the '50s, and Jimmy Boyle, Penang's foremost jazz pianist/composer, have left an indelible mark on Malaysian popular music. Ray Rozells bounced onto the stage in a sharp suit, cutting an altogether different figure from the one belting out Sam Cooke, James Brown and Otis Redding numbers and doing scissor jump-kicks at the Hard Rock Hotel the day beforenot bad for someone in his sixties. Here, however, he acted more his age which is not like him and crooned his way through "Moon River" and Frank Sinatra's "My Way."
Had the orchestra exercised more ambition, perhaps by performing Joaquin Rodrigo's "Concierto de Aranjuez"which has been recorded by a number of notable jazz figures such as trumpeter Miles Davis and arranger Gil Evans, guitarist Jim Hall, pianist Chick Corea, and the Modern Jazz Quartetthen its inclusion in the program would have made more sense. Nevertheless, the Penang Philharmonic's participation in the 7th Penang Island Jazz Festival was a significant first for classical music in Malaysia, a publicity coup for the festival itself and an indication of director Augustin's willingness to shake things up.
As in the last couple of editions the festival got underway at the G Hotel, situated on Penang's famous boulevard, Gurney Drive, facing the sea and just a stone's throw from the famous hawker food enclave with its exotic mélange of Indian, Chinese and Malay cuisine. The cozy surroundings of the G Spot lounge played host to German a cappella sextet, Stouxingers. One woman (Katharina Debus) and five men fought heroically against sound system glitches and boorish behavior from a minority in the crowd to provide thrilling entertainment that was breathtaking for its discipline, precision and joyous, free improvisation imagine half a dozen Bobby McFerrins in gospel-jazz mode and you may begin to get an idea of the breadth of the Stouxingers' imagination.
The rhythm section and groove engine room of the sextet was provided by Karsten Mullera student of classical opera bassand multi-instrumentalist Thomas Piontek who played the role of the drums in the group. Muller provided an incredibly deep, grooving bass voice which acted as a kind of fulcrum for the ensemble and, alongside Piontek, the two formed a driving, organic rhythm which was the blood in the veins of the music. Founder, composer and arranger Michael Eimann, Gregorio Hernandez and Konrad Zeiner combined with Debus to create a wonderful polyphony, with Debus bringing a wilder R&B, soul and jazz freedom to her improvisations.
With the first set sung acoustically, and the second set with amplification, the audience was treated to an electrifying set which mostly comprised the Stouxingers' original explorations of pop tunes ranging from The Beatles to Prince. Despite the technically dazzling feat that is undoubtedly required to gel six distinct vocal timbres to such beautiful effect, the key word of the performance was fun, and the sextet clearly derived as much pleasure from performing together as the audience did in listening and observing.
The first two days of the Penang Island Jazz festival were given over to the four fringe stages and, in total, 14 Malaysian bands performed throughout the four days. The fringe side of the festival has grown continuously since its introduction in the third edition and has become an integral part of the program. Initially intended to provide a bit of buzz to the early afternoon, the fringe stages at the Penang Island Jazz Festival serve a much more vital purpose these days, providing as they do an important platform for aspiring young Malaysian groups. It is a sure sign of the growing status of the festival that over 50 bands applied for a fringe spot this year.