Borneo Jazz, May 12-15, 2011
The main stage program began on Friday with SIU2, a band from Hong Kong which blends traditional Chinese instruments with drums, bass and Hammond organ. The letters in the name stand for Sheng It Up, a reference to founder and composer Yin Ng Cheuk's 5,000 year-old instrument, the Sheng, composed of a series of vertical bamboo pipes in cylindrical form which produce a sound akin to a mouth organ. Billed as a progressive jazz band, SIU2 create a modern fusion where improvisation is really only heard in the drums of Tsui Hip Lun, the bass of Chan Hok Ming and the Hammond organ on which Ng Cheuk doubled. The sanxian of Lam Tin Waia long-necked, guitar-like instrumentthe zheng of Lau Shui Chunga finger-plucked zitherand the Sheng, brought overtly Chinese melodies to music which was highly rhythmic and dynamic, despite the lack of improvisation.
Lam Tin Wai
"Full Moon" began with a quietly yearning sheng intro; even amplified, the sound of this ancient instrument is not strong, though its harmonic possibilities lend it a depth of expression which Ng Cheuk fully exploited. The piece built in intensity with the arrival of the stringed instruments and suddenly burst into an Oriental hillbilly stomp, with pumping drums and bass. Lam Tin Wai's trilled notes resounded as Ng Cheuk's sheng blurred the line between improvised and composed performance, which is part of the mystery and appeal of SIU2's music.
Pianist Fan Kwok Hung's classical European training brought another spice to the pot, particularly on "Western Tune," though his sharp little embellishments and percussive touches lent an angularity to the tunes, in contrast to the more melodic approach of the Chinese instruments. Ng Cheuk's tight arrangements were characterized by brief melodic statements, unison riffs and strong juxtaposition between bold group statements of some intensity, and quiet, meditative passages. Walking bass ran through "Flower Party" and a waltzing rhythm imbued the upbeat set closer "Goodbye Walls," recognizable jazz vocabulary in a performance where the language, whilst dramatic, was not always easily identifiable.
Ng Cheuk and SIU2's singular approach to Chinese and western music makes for fascinating listening, and the enthusiastic crowd gave its seal of approval to the band's first performance outside China. SIU2's dynamic yet soulful composed music offered ample proof that progressive, exciting fusion is not necessarily synonymous with improvisation.
Brazilian music has featured in most of the previous editions of Borneo Jazz, and regulars to the festival recalled with enthusiasm last year's performance of violinist Ricardo Hertz and his quartet, whose vibrant folk delved into a rich folkloric tradition stretching back over a century. This year, the more familiar Brazilian forms of bossa and samba graced the festival with the laidback performance of Cunha E Piper. Vocalist Fernanda Cunha and guitarist Ray Piper co-led a seasoned sextet through a polite set of mostly well-known Brazilian standards, one which drew heavily from Antonio Carlos Jobim.
Piper has a long history with Brazil, and his recording Sabor de Rio (SOCAN, 2009) featured some of Brazil's top musicians such as bassist Jorge Helder, bandolim player Ronaldo do Bandolim and guitarist Rogerio Souza.. Clearly, Piper is steeped in the tradition, of choro and samba, although this performance had the feel of a play-it-safe set, peppered with old chestnuts like "The Girl from Ipanema," a sultry "Corcovado," "Triste" and "So Danco Samba." Piper, pianist Michael Creber and particularly saxophonist/flautist Thomas Keenlyside, all soloed with aplomb, but the lack of any Brazilian percussion left a hole in the rhythmic component of the music.
With the exception of Cunha's swinging "Candy," the set was a bit one-paced until the final couple of numbers. The beautiful samba "Adeus America" from 1948, with its tale of longing for the home country, took the band out on a high, with Keenlyside injecting some fire in into his saxophone solo. Greater variation in tempo throughout the set would have been welcome, though a more intimate venue would probably have made quite a difference.
As it was, Piper's Braziliada quartet, featuring the same musicians, closed the festival on Sunday afternoon, with a matinee performance of altogether more intimacy and vibrancy. The Ricardo Hertz show the previous year underlined that the Miri crowdwhich brought people from neighboring Sabah, Kuala Lumpar, Penang, and form much further afieldis appreciative of less familiar Brazilian music forms. A set of some of Jobim's many other compositions, seldom heard outside Brazil ,might have made for a more engaging performance, and these musicianspassionate one and all about Brazil's musicwould have no problem pulling it off.