Borneo Jazz, May 12-15, 2011
If Borneo Jazz aspires to become "an iconic jazz festival" in the words of the CEO of Sarawak Tourism, Dato Rashid Khan, then it might want to consider readdressing the balance between the predominant fringes-of-jazz performances, and more straight ahead jazz. As the two women-stated rhetorically: "Shouldn't there be a couple of real jazz bands each day?" It's food for thought for the organizers. A 50-50 ratio seems like a reasonable quota, and all the evidence suggests that people in Asia in general are hungry for top-quality jazz. Certainly, the enthusiasm of the Jarasum International Jazz Festival crowd in Korea for drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts quartet, the Bangkok Jazz Festival crowd's approval of bassist Christian McBride's Inside Straight , and the Indonesian's excitement generated by Charlie Haden's Quartet West at Java Jazz would tend to support the case. John Kelman's article When is a Jazz Festival Not a Jazz festival? takes a deeper look at this sometimes contentious issue.
Credit, however, must be given to Borneo Jazz for inviting Vancouver-based, Miri boy, Victor Yong, and his band Electric Carnival, in its bid to promote homegrown talent. Guitarist Yong left Miri in '77, for Canada. A lover of rock music, it was a record by guitarist Joe Pass and pianist Oscar Peterson which gave him the bug for jazz, and for the past twenty years he has performed in a wide variety of contexts, though often in a Latin context. It was a thrill for Yong when his application to perform at Borneo Jazz '11 with his Latin jazz-rock band was accepted, and his home-coming concert was warmly received by the Miri crowd.
An early period Carlos Santana vibe colored a lot of the music, particularly the opener, "Chill," with Yong's biting, bluesy guitar backed by a driving rhythm section, with the congas and cowbells of Nicolas Apiyor prominently featured. Yong and second guitarist David Phyall both built patient solos either side of the extremely groovy head, and the vibe could almost have been San Francisco circa 1971. There was a more contemporary edge to "Make a Move," which could best be described as Latin disco. "Flamenco Nuevo" was an up-tempo Spanish flavored rocker with a nod towards the salsa duraminus vocalsthat has undergone something of a revival in recent years.
On the slower number "Ever So Sudden," Yong's elegant, slightly funky guitar work evoked guitarist Wes Montgomery. On "Batacuda" the Electric Carnival band formed a line at the front of the stage, and, led by Phil Belanger from the Cunha E Piper, it cut loose with an infectious percussive rhythm. The groove was eventually taken up by drummer Randall Stoll, and bassist Doug Stevenson who steered the band into "Dawn of the Carnival," a highly melodic tune which again featured fine fret work from Yong, and a swirling keyboard solo from Louis Mastroianni. An energetic set concluded with a return to Santana-influenced Latin jazz rock; Belanger worked his congas hard and Mastroianni's organ riffs shimmered, as Stoll took an extended drum solo, followed by the leader's killer six-string solo. Any nerves that Yong may have felt returning to his home town to play were kept well hidden, and Electric Carnival's confident, grooving performance earned a strong ovation.
Earlier in the day, Yong had expressed his feelings about the festival: "It's unbelievable that Miri has a jazz festival; I mean, Miri? This wasn't a sophisticated town when I left thirty years ago." Yong said. And for Yong, the future of jazz in Miri is bright: "There's quite a bit of improvisation in indigenous music, like the music of the Iban [tribe], which means that jazz has a natural foothold." If the musicians of Miri were encouraged by Yong's participation at Borneo Jazz '11 to aim for the main stage themselves one day, then Yong will have played some part in the growth of both the local music scene, and the festival itself.
Japanese quintet Ralyzz Dig, led by saxophonist Yuichiro Tokuda, gave an exciting performance which was steeped in the jazz tradition without being enslaved by it. A lively set of originals covered post-bop terraindriving and full-bloodedthough there was plenty of rhythmic diversity and emotion in Tokuda's compositions, which also borrowed from Japanese folk song. The opening number began with a big vamp, courtesy of pianist Kazuhiro Tamura and guitarist Naoto Suzuki, which stirred the crowd. Kumpei Nakabayashi's bass and Gaku Hasegawa's crashing drums provided an animated backdrop for Tokuda, whose phrasing flowed like endless waves, rising and crashing. Tokuda was seemingly inspired by the occasion; his solos, whether on alto or soprano, were lean and muscular, and he eschewed any gimmickry or showboating.