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Penang Island Jazz Festival: Penang, Malaysia, Dec 1-4, 2011

Penang Island Jazz Festival: Penang, Malaysia, Dec 1-4, 2011
By Published: December 21, 2011
8th Penang Island Jazz Festival
Penang, Malaysia
December 1-4, 2011
For small, independent jazz festivals heavily reliant on private sector sponsorship, it can be a jungle out there. In the case of the Penang Island Jazz Festival, sandwiched between the Straits of Malacca and tropical forest, this is literally true. Monkeys, civet and leopard cats, pangolins, turtles, and a vast assortment of birds, reptiles and amphibians make their home here. Snakes, spiders and scorpions are also indigenous, but so far seem indifferent to the strains of jazz emanating from the festival venue at the Bayview Beach Resort. However, there are signs that the PIJF—celebrating its 8th edition—has perhaps turned a corner and is no longer scrapping for survival. This year, a record number of bands, both local and international, performed on the main stage, and no fewer than five other hotels provided fringe stages, up from last year's four. The program once again boasted an impressive variety of music from artists hailing from Malaysia, Korea, Indonesia, Norway, India, Switzerland, Holland, Austria, the UK and America, strengthening the festival's image as a truly international event.

This year was marked, however, by the first appearance of a rare breed, not a slow loris or a flying lemur, but a much stranger, predatory beast altogether—an international media pack. With the growing support of the government, the PIJF was able to invite specialist jazz journalists from New Zealand, Italy, Indonesia, Norway, Canada, Japan, Slovenia and Laos, and jazz festival directors from Japan, Hong Kong and China. In addition to local media, lifestyle/travel magazine journalists and photographers were also invited from Bangkok and Singapore, testament to the island governor's growing recognition of the festival's potential in putting Penang on the map as an international tourist destination. It's an acknowledgment too of the international renown that the Penang Island Jazz festival has garnered in its relatively short existence.

George Town, Penang

The logic is sound. Apart form the beaches, tree-covered hills, and flora and fauna which beguile visitors to the island, Penang is also home to George Town, the vibrant and colorful, UNESCO World Heritage site. Here, thriving Chinese, Indian and Malay communities co-exist harmoniously. The winding back streets are characterized by an architectural diversity which matches its ethnic make-up. Amongst British colonial edifices, Italian buildings perch gracefully, and multicolored, two-toned shop-houses with their famous bamboo-roll blinds proliferate. Elaborate Chinese and Hindu temples, mosques, tea shops, money changers and street eateries rub shoulders.

The smells of delicious hawker food—steaming soups, spicy curries, tropical fruit, and fried rice—blend with the aroma of temple incense. The sounds of Indian bhangra music, the honking of car horns and the bustle of people going about their business provide a pulsating beat to the rhythm of life. A strong sense of the tides of history permeates the brickwork and the different colored faces of this once-famous, spice trading port, now a busy metropolis. Little wonder then, that Penang often features in lists of "places to see before you die."

Chinese temple, Penang

As in previous years, the festival began with a series of concerts at the fringe stages on Thursday and Friday. The established venue of the G-Spot hosted concerts by blues singer Nina Van Horn on Thursday and the Rio Sidik Quartet from Indonesia on Friday, both of whom later performed on the main stage at the Bayview Beach. The innovation this year was the inaugural concert in the Tropical Spice Garden , an idyllic venue carved out of the forest and nestled in the lush green hills overlooking the sea. Visitors to this exotic botanical garden were greeted by monkeys walking the electricity cables, but thankfully these were not of the camera/sunglasses-thieving variety.

Over 500 species of tropical flora, fauna, spices and herbs cover four and a half acres, an area which also houses a cookery school and restaurant with views of the sea. It's well worth taking a guided tour, though signs denote just about every plant, identifying which leaf is medicinal, which leaf is hallucinogenic and which leaf is potentially lethal—essential knowledge for the ill, the adventurous, and those plotting revenge or seeking life's ejector seat. The media pack was none of the above, and followed a path which wound its way up gently through a wall of bamboo, knotted vines and giant ferns to the venue, an open-sided dome bedecked with lights suspended like stars. After a superb meal, courtesy of the cookery school—rich, buttery curries laced with fresh herbs and spices—the concert got underway for a pleasingly full house.

Three Malaysian bands were showcased. The Az Samad Duo blended Samad's acoustic guitar wizardry with Zalila Lee's bubbling percussion. Samad is a well-traveled musician, having performed in the United States, Europe and Asia. Technically impressive, Samad has performed on record and in concert with Texas accordion legend Flaco Jiminez, utilizing the percussive potential of the guitar to great effect, something in the vein of guitarist Andy McKee. However, impressive though Samad's technique undoubtedly was, the pop/world compositions which drew inspiration from Irish and Spanish wells lacked narrative, to a degree. Pianist Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk
1917 - 1982
piano
's jazz standard "Blue Monk" and a pretty Malaysian tune suggested that Samad is, for the time being at least, a more accomplished interpreter of songs. The crowd, it has to be said, greeted the performance with warm applause.

From left: Az Samad, Zalila Lee

Next up, vocalist Bihzhu provided one of the few genuinely jazz-flavored performances of the fringe festival. Possessing a strong, sultry voice, Bihzhu displayed an inherent sense of time and imbued swing into a set of mostly originals. Clarinetist David Ling—who stood in with only an hour's notice—deserves credit for some fine playing. The one cover, singer/songwriter Rickie Lee Jones' gorgeous "The Moon is Made of Gold," capped a well received performance and one which earmarked Bihzhu as a potential leading light in Penang's emerging jazz scene. The final act saw established singer/songwriter Liyana Fizi ease her way stylishly through folk and bossa nova-flavored fare. With the falling of heavy rain that had forgotten the monsoon season was over, the charming, stage-savvy Fizi had the crowd singing along to one of her hits as she sounded the final note on an enjoyable evening.

The tent-dome of the Tropical Spice Garden was a wonderful setting for live music, and might make a successful alternative venue to the rather muddy sound of the G-Spot as a place to hold future main festival acts—perhaps supported by up-and-coming local musicians—in the two evenings before the main action of the weekend at the "Jazz by the Beach" stage. The evening also served to underline festival director Paul Agustin's consistent efforts to support and promote local musicians, of whatever stripe.

Tropical Spice Garden

The weekend began in mid-morning with a program entitled Creative Malaysia Showcase, which gave six Malaysian bands/performers the opportunity to impress directors of international jazz festivals from Hong Kong, China and Tokyo as well as music journalists. Penang jazz veteran, keyboardist Wilson Quah's arrangements of self-penned tunes and a Malaysian folk medley impressed, as did fellow Penangite, keyboardist Jimmy Boyle and clarinetist Haman Adnan, for their intuitive interaction and virtuosity. Malaysian stalwarts Aseana Percussion Unit—a.k.a APU— gave the sort of typically rousing performance on Saturday which has seen the ensemble invited to jazz and world music festivals in China, Hong Kong, Korea, Thailand, Borneo and beyond. APU's 30-minute set highlighted the multicultural makeup of the country, with myriad percussion instruments from the four corners of the world, fusing with Asian wind and string instruments in a joyous cacophony. It's set included a swinging version of Puerto Rican trombonist/composer Juan Tizol
Juan Tizol
Juan Tizol
1900 - 1984
trombone
's "Caravan," led by irrepressible vocalist Mark David.

Aseana Percussion Unit

The only solo performance was the outstanding singer/guitarist Paul Ponnudorai. A reggae version of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" opened the performance, and from the get-go his charismatic persona had the crowd in his pocket. Ponnudorai, an effortlessly accomplished acoustic guitarist, has a voice somewhere between that of a seasoned blues singer and a soul god, and possesses vocal alchemy which could turn dross to gold. A triumphant "Joshua Fought the Battle of Jerico"—the mid-19th century spiritual covered by, amongst others, Paul Robeson, Mahalia Jackson
Mahalia Jackson
Mahalia Jackson
1911 - 1972
vocalist
, Elvis Presley
Elvis Presley
Elvis Presley
1935 - 1977
vocalist
and Cassandra Wilson
Cassandra Wilson
Cassandra Wilson
b.1955
vocalist
—was followed by another jazz standard, Henry Mancini
Henry Mancini
Henry Mancini
b.1924
piano
/Johnny Mercer
Johnny Mercer
Johnny Mercer
1909 - 1976
composer/conductor
's lovely "These Days of Wine and Roses." A wordless "Tequila" provided some wonderful six-string exhibitionism and no small measure of fun, but the best example of Ponnudoari's ability to recast a tune to his own design was the storming, bluesy rendition of singer Ann Peebles "I Can't Stand the Rain." A hypnotic performance by any standard.

The Island Jazz Forum on Saturday morning brought together jazz experts in frank and open discussion. Rather than focusing on the usual "challenges facing jazz" fare of such panels, the forum chose instead to highlight the positive contribution of jazz within society. All About Jazz's Managing Editor and globe-trotter John Kelman gave the keynote speech, leading to a dialogue between respected jazz journalists Jan Granlie from Norway, Luca Vitali from Italy, Tokyo Jazz Festival Director, Atsuko Yashima, and Hong Kong International Jazz Festival Director, Peter Lee. Kelman set the tone for the discussion, highlighting the inclusiveness of jazz, and citing as an example of jazz's great melting pot the fact that saxophonist/clarinetist Sidney Bechet
Sidney Bechet
Sidney Bechet
1897 - 1959
sax, soprano
incorporated Italian opera into his playing. "Jazz," Kelman asserted, "accepts and encourages pan-cultural cross-pollination." Pointing to the example of ECM—a label few know better than Kelman—he described how collaborations between an Iranian oud player, an Iranian percussionist, a Swiss bassist and a German reeds player is absolutely the norm these days. Kelman acknowledged that jazz holds no monopoly on cross-cultural collaborations, but reminded the audience of jazz's prominence in leading the way.

Island Jazz Forum panelists predict great future for PIJF

Vitali stressed the importance of introducing music to children, and struck a chord with all present when he said: "Every festival has to try to work in the community—this is the real mission of the jazz festival." The segment of video presented by Yashima, documenting pianist/composer Bob James
Bob James
Bob James
b.1939
piano
' trip to the tsunami-devastated town of Ofunato in Japan, was a moving example of jazz's ability to play an important social role.. By way of introduction, Yashima said: "These people's houses, their instruments and hopes were washed away." James composed a piece of music for tsunami survivors, the Sandpipers Orchestra, and there were more than a few tearful eyes in both the video and the Penang audience when, following the performance, one Sandpiper musician said: "Until today I had no hope, but now I have hope for tomorrow."

A question to the panel posed by Agus Setiawan of Wartajazz.com asked how an Indonesian musician can make him or herself known to the wider international jazz community; the panel agreed on the importance of networking and encouraged musicians to take advantage of the self-promotion opportunities that advocacy sites like All About Jazz offer free of any charge. It was perhaps telling that the five panelists—and Penang Island Jazz Festival Director, Paul Agustin— had all met each other at various editions of JazzNorway in a Nutshell, pointing to the value of networking, and underlining at the same time the importance of the Norwegian jazz/creative music scene.

Fred Cheah

Saturday's main program on the Jazz by the Beach stage got underway with Penang's very own Fred Cheah and the Jazzhats. Cheah—who emigrated to Australia in the late-seventies—said at the previous day's press conference: "Thirty four years ago jazz in Penang was quite non-existent." It must therefore have been something of a thrill for Cheah to open the PIJF 2011 in front of a home crowd, and he clearly enjoyed every minute of a sweat-raising performance. That Cheah's set was comprised entirely of covers begged the question as to whether the opening slot of the festival might not have better served an up-and-coming Malaysian band, but Agustin knows the Malaysian audience's preference for cover bands, and aimed to give it a little of what it likes.

In addition, Agustin has shown a great deal of loyalty to Malaysia's veteran musicians over the years, allotting main stage exposure to the Island Palm Beach Boys—veterans of the '50s Hawaiian movement—in PIJF 2009, and '70s funk/R&B veterans Carefree in PIJF 2010. The balance that Agustin strives to strike between allowing Malaysia's musical elders to enjoy some of the limelight, and promoting the newcomers, is a commendable part of the festival's ethos.

Cheah's set drew heavily from his main influence, singer Al Jarreau
Al Jarreau
Al Jarreau
b.1940
vocalist
, and also included an up-tempo version of "How Sweet It Is to Be Loved by You," a delightfully bluesy "Georgia on My Mind," and Paul Simon's "Late in the Evening." It was a celebratory performance, and Cheah's commanding stage persona and strong vocals won over the crowd. Jarreau's funky "Boogie Down" took Cheah and his tight band out on a high.

The Espen Eriksen Trio—the first of the festival's two Norwegian bands—gave a memorable concert which showcased its fine debut recording, You Had Me At Goodbye (Rune Grammafon, 2010). Opening with the appropriately named "Anthem," which was elegant and quietly epic, the trio's combination of melody and quiet dynamism provided one of the festival's most striking performances. The trio's compositions were short in duration, for the most part, but the narratives wrapped themselves around telling melodies in direct fashion, especially on the lyrical "Grinde," which featured tasteful solos from pianist Eriksen and bassist Lars Tomod Jenset.

At times, the legacy of pianist Esbjorn Svensson
Esbjorn Svensson
Esbjorn Svensson
1964 - 2008
piano
could be felt in the handclaps, pianism and bass arco, but on the whole Espen's voice leaned closer to that of pianist Tord Gustavsen
Tord Gustavsen
Tord Gustavsen
b.1970
piano
and his gospel-tinged blues, particularly on the lovely chilled groove of "On the Jar." However, the contrast between the songs' delicate architecture and the propulsive quality that coursed through the music—typified by drummer Andreas Bye's dynamic brush work— set the trio apart from its contemporaries. The Espen Eriksen Trio possesses an original voice.

Espen proved skilled at slowly ratcheting up the tension, as drawn-out bass ostinatos and driving rhythms provided the base for the leader's high-end swirls and light-as-air flourishes, which gathered an inevitable momentum. Dynamism contrasted with moody, arco-led passages, and when all three joined to take the music up a gear there was an effortless power. Tina Turner's "We Don't Need Another Hero" (written by Terry Britten and Graham Lyle) was given an understated delivery, with the melody carried by Espen against lovely bass counterpoint and brushes. The performance climaxed with the more urgent "Masaka Tsara," a slightly funky number where groove, for once, trumped melody. The Espen Eriksen Trio showed that spare playing doesn't preclude virtuosity, and that a quiet aesthetic doesn't automatically dismiss dynamism.

From left: Robert Pawlik, Michaela Rabitsch

Guitar, trumpet and tabla provided an altogether different trio experience as the Michaela Rabitsch
Michaela Rabitsch
Michaela Rabitsch
b.1963
trumpet
and Robert Pawlik
Robert Pawlik
Robert Pawlik
b.1965
guitar
Trio delivered a musical fiesta rich in its diversity of rhythmic and melodic influences. Trumpeter, vocalist and composer Rabitsch and fellow Austrian, guitarist/composer Pawlik, have played together for over a dozen years, and, adding a touch of spice to their pot, were joined by Indian tabla player Vinayek Netke. Jazzy guitar, muted trumpet and percolating rhythms colored much of the music, and Rabitsch's warm vocals, strong, open trumpet lines and scatting added breadth and muscle to the mix.

Several songs were presented from Rabitsch and Pawlik's third CD, Moods (Extraplatte, 2008); the swinging "In Silent Moments," the breezy "Afrika"—with Pawlik's guitar bringing the flavor of West Africa to his strings—and the snappy "Tren Numero 1," inspired by a 20-hour train journey from Havana to Santiago de Cuba. Rabitsch's sunny, wordless vocal fused with Pawlik in seamless unison on "Afrika," which also featured a blistering tabla solo from Netke. Rabitsch's versatility on trumpet and vocals was seen throughout the concert in her command of different idioms. Whether swinging on "A Walk in the Sun," gliding through the easy-listening "In the First Days of Springtime" or beguiling with the ballad "The Long Road," Rabitsch's virtuosity was evident, and the trio's intuitive understanding apparent. The moods and rhythms of Africa, India, and the Americas infused this upbeat groove music and charmed the Penang crowd.

JiYoung Lee

The PIJF's close association with the Jarasum International Jazz Festival in Korea has meant that Korean jazz artists have consistently played here over the years. For the 8th edition of PIJF, pianist Jiyoung Lee led her talented quartet through a set of mainstream, post-bop oriented jazz. Like so many Asian pianists, Lee is classically trained, but she also boasts a notable jazz pedigree, having toured for a year with Canadian trumpeter/bandleader Maynard Ferguson
Maynard Ferguson
Maynard Ferguson
1928 - 2006
trumpet
's nine-piece Big Bop Nouveau Band. The performance took material from her second CD as leader, Closer to You (Vitamin Entertainment, 2010).

An original take on pianist/composer Scott Joplin
Scott Joplin
Scott Joplin
1868 - 1917
piano
's "Maple Leaf Rag" was a fine introduction to Lee's skills, as strong left hand chords cut through dancing right-hand bop figures; rag-time for the 21st century. The hymnal "Closer to You" was the second trio piece of the set, with bassist Choi Eun-Chang and drummer Chris Varga injecting drive into the play. Saxophonist Dai Kyun Im's arrival made up the quartet, which launched into Paul McCartney
Paul McCartney
Paul McCartney
b.1942
composer/conductor
's "Let it Be." Growing from a gently mellifluous beginning, Im took command of the tune, serving up an impressively constructed solo whose improvisations never overpowered the song's melody.

These musicians have played together in each others' bands for at least half a decade, with a resulting chemistry that allows for tight interplay and a nicely loose sense of freedom. This tight-but-loose delivery imbued a funky new, and as yet untitled, R&B number. This sax-driven and grooving vehicle allowed Lee to indulge herself a little, unfolding a solo which was equal parts Ray Charles
Ray Charles
Ray Charles
1930 - 2004
piano
gospel-blues and hard bop. Rarely predictable, Lee's more exuberant runs up and down the keys were always aware of melody. In the passages where she played solo, a ruminative, neo-classical air colored her explorations, though she was clearly steeped in the blues. The quartet enjoyed itself on the up-tempo tune "I'm Just Having Fun," with Lee and Im stretching out. On the set closer, the Jimmy Van Heusen/Johnny Burke classic "It Could Happen to You," the exchange between pianist and saxophonist was engrossing. Lee's language seemed to reference pianist Ahmad Jamal
Ahmad Jamal
Ahmad Jamal
b.1930
piano
, who recorded the tune fifty-plus years ago. However, as with Joplin's ragtime which started the set, even a WW II-era Van Heusen/Burke chestnut sounded freshly minted in the hands of Lee's impressive quartet.

From mainstream jazz to...well, Yuri Honing
Yuri Honing
Yuri Honing

sax, tenor
Wired Paradise. The name of saxophonist Honing's band suggests something out of the ordinary, and it would indeed be folly to try and hang a name on its music. Suffice it to say, elements of alternative pop, punk rock and subtle psychedelic vibes nest together, though Honing is essentially a bop-inspired musician. Described by The Times of London as "one of the most fearless and creative saxophonists of the moment," Honing has never shied away from a challenge; he has recorded the music of classical composer Franz Schubert with pianist Nora Mulder, collaborated with Vince Mendoza and the 51-piece Metropole Orchestra, cut mainstream jazz with heavyweights like drummer Paul Motian
Paul Motian
Paul Motian
1931 - 2011
drums
, bassist Gary Peacock
Gary Peacock
Gary Peacock
b.1935
bass
and pianist Paul Bley
Paul Bley
Paul Bley
b.1932
piano
, performed in a duo with fearless improvisational pianist Craig Taborn
Craig Taborn
Craig Taborn
b.1970
keyboard
and with classical Indian musicians.

From left: Stef van Es, Yuri Honing

For the last year and a half, Wired Paradise has been touring extensively to promote the excellent live recording White Tiger (Jazz in Motion Records, 2010) and its show in Penang showcased the music inspired by Indian author Aravind Adiga's Booker Prize-winning novel, The White Tiger (2008). The slow anthem, "Zitelle," opened the show with a drone underpinning a dub-like groove from drummer Joost Lijbaart and bassist Mark Haanstra. Honing's piercing tone soared and spiraled hypnotically, and guitarist Stef Van Es cut a jagged, bluesy solo on this slow-burning epic.

The band was minus second guitarist Kesuke Matsuro, and although the intensity of the music never dipped, Matsuro's voice, and the extra dimension that two guitarists of contrasting style had brought to the band was definitely missing. However, even as a quartet there was no escaping the power of the Iggy Pop-inspired "Meet Your Demons," a barreling, punk-meets-bebop explosion. Haanstra's bass comes more from rock and pop than jazz and his steady beats and churning riffs—notably on "Kaiser Joe"—defined the shape of the music as much as Honing's instantly recognizable sound.

Honing has always been a thoughtful interpreter, and David Bowie's 1969 pop anthem "Space Oddity" provided the perfect vehicle for Wired Paradise's particular fusion—slow and melodic, intense and free-spirited. Honing's best solo of the evening came on "Tensing Norgay," a seductive, ambient composition with a reggae-ish groove. In full flow, notes tumbled and tore from Honing's tenor with a tremendous sense of purpose, and it was easy to see how the man from The Times got so excited about the saxophonist's sound. The traditional set closer, "Wild is the Wind," rocked for three powerful minutes—another anthemic shout—as though Bowie had joined King Crimson for an encore. Talking with members of the audience over the weekend, it was clear that Yuri Honing's Wired Paradise was the most challenging band of PIJF 2011 for the majority of the crowd, but it's unlikely that this will worry Honing, who continues to pursue a very personal, exciting musical path.

Saturday night headliners Shakatak had drawn a large crowd to the Jazz By The Beach stage, with a good number of folks making the four-hour trip by car from Kuala Lumpur to see the British jazz-funk legends. The band enjoyed its hit-making heyday in the eighties, at a time when a hit single shifted huge numbers, and although it has never stopped recording—unlike a host of bands who stagger on endlessly, exploiting the nostalgia circuit—the crowd expected to hear Shakatak's greatest hits. The band duly delivered, and for a little more than an hour, founding members keyboardist Bill Sharpe, lead vocalist/percussionist/flautist Jill Saward, drummer Roger Odell and bassist George Anderson gave a rousing performance which had people up and dancing.

What was quite amazing was the oft-repeated comment from crowd members after the show: "I didn't know I knew all of their songs." Shakatak has topped pop and jazz charts around the world during its thirty year career, and there can hardly be anybody of a certain age who isn't familiar with songs like the infectious jazz-funk classic "Night Birds," the sing-along "Day by Day," the sunny flute motif of "Invitation," or the disco-funk of "Down on the Street." Musically, the band was tight, and guitarist Alan Wormald and backing vocalist/saxophonist Jacqui Hicks brought additional energy to a vibrant set. Shakatak has three decades plus under its belt; it still has the chops and certainly has the grooves. If these musicians continue to enjoy themselves and give joy at the same time, there's no reason at all why they can't continue for a couple decades more. Shakatak, big crowd hit of the PIJF 2011.

Bill Sharpe, Shakatak

With the usual array of activities going on around the music, such as musicians' workshops, presentations, music showcases, and the aforementioned Island Jazz Forum, it was difficult to take in all the fringe stages, particularly the G-Spot Hotel, which was a forty-minute drive downtown. However, with the bands rotating through the venues, it was possible to catch most of the 15 Malaysian-fringe stage bands over the weekend at the Bayview Hotel or the Hard Rock Hotel next door. As in previous years there was a dearth of jazz on the fringe program, but it's hard to criticize the festival's promotion and support of local musicians of whatever musical genre. Two bands, however, stood out. Cats in Love—a retro hard rock band—fairly shook up the Bayview lobby with its guitar-driven energy, and Elixir captivated the small audience with an acoustic set which mixed folk and country flavors into its jazz stock. Vocalist Gina Mojina impressed with her sense of time and natural swing, and worked a little bit of magic on Hank Williams' "Cold, Cold Heart."

The Jazz Gallery, which displays jazz photography, posters and prints, is another aspect of the festival which is growing in importance. World-renowned British photographer William Ellis's work was presented in 2009, and this year the gallery presented the work of another internationally recognized photographer, Ziga Koritnik. Hailing from Ljubljana-Slovenia, Koritnik's captive eyes have been recording snapshots of jazz history for twenty-five years. Since 1996, Koritnik has been the resident photographer at the Skopje Jazz Festival in Macedonia. All the photographs in this article were taken by Koritnik, and it's easy to see why the festival has held onto his services for the past fifteen years, or why his photos regularly grace the pages of the world's leading jazz magazines. Koritnik has a book of his photos due for publication next year, and All About Jazz will be conducting an in-depth interview with the artist. For those curious to see more of Koritnik's photos, follow this video link to his current exhibition.

Amir Youssof

The final day of PIJF 2011 began with the Amir Youssof Acoustic Quartet. Based in Borneo, Youssof possesses a whiskey-and-smoke voice reminiscent of Chris Rea, and pens songs about the vicissitudes of life's great journey. The songs came from the three CDs he has recorded as a leader in 25 years of performing, and revealed Youssof to be a talented songwriter and gifted lyricist with a soulful delivery. Rhythm guitar from Albert Sirimai, tearing blues guitar from Arab, and sympathetic percussion from Badar Fawzy injected tremendous pulse into the music. On the narrated road story "Twin Peaks, Oregon" the collective energy evoked the Dave Matthews Band. Youssof's lyrics—"I don't know what I'm looking for, maybe me"—repeatedly turned towards the inner journey as well.

The one cover, Paul Simon's "Can't Run But" seemed tailor-made for Youssof; and the lyrics, "down by the river bank a blues band arrives, the music suffers, the music business thrives" were a reminder of the difficult artistic path Youssof has followed. Throughout his career he has refused to compromise his musical convictions, staying true to his music but being overlooked by radio and Malaysian promoteres who generally seek only cover bands. Simon may be something of a role model for Youssof, whose own songs contain lyrics of simple, yet poetic imagery. These were songs full of keen observations, gently wry and anecdotal.

From left: Amir Youssof, Rio Sidik, Arab

"Altered Nature," with an emotive blues solo from Arab, related the tale of going drinking with the Man on the Moon. "Some Things Never Last" touched on the pain of losing friends and lovers as time rolls by, while "Calling on You" was a cleverly spun tale on the human perils faced by wildlife. Strong melodies colored all the tunes and Fawzy's myriad percussion instruments—hang, udu, cajon, wind chimes, bells and shakers—were a constantly simmering presence in the music. On one number, guest Rio Sidik contributed a beautiful, muted trumpet solo, followed by Arab and Fawzy on cajon in turn. And throughout the stirring rhythms, the stories, and the crying blues guitar, it was Youssof's voice which struck the deepest chord and which will stay longest in the memory.

Norwegian Eva Bjerga Haugen hasn't released a CD yet, and may not be the most internationally recognized singer, but on the evidence of her performance at PIJF 2011, her impending debut recording is surely going to make some waves. Backed by occasional hired hands, the Espen Eriksen Trio, Haugen scored heavily with the main stage crowd with a haunting performance that will no doubt go down as one of the most memorable in the history of the PIJF thus far. Haugen revealed a voice of uncommon beauty, and eschewed vocal gimmickry in a set which covered French chanson, Malaysian popular music, art rockers Radiohead, and the Great American Songbook.

Eva Bjerga Haugen

The common denominator in this musical potpourri was Haugen's ethereal voice. Although she seemed most at home on quieter numbers like the dreamy "Don't Fade"—accompanying herself on kalimba—she possesses a voice of great power that she unleashed sparingly and to maximum effect. The backing trio lent consummate support, buoying and pushing Haugen as the songs dictated. Eriksen's crystalline comping perfectly partnered Haugen's pure yet strong lines, and the rhythm section of bassist Lars Tormod Jenset and drummer Andreas Bye were equally alert. The bossa nova, "Photograph in Black and White"— sung in Portuguese—was a set highlight, pitching singer and bassist into intimate musical embrace. On "Quel Jour Sommes Nous," Jenset on arco once again combined beautifully with Haugen's balladic, lilting tones.

Haugen sang Malaysian icon Jimmy Boyle's lovely "Jauh Jauh," in Malay, to the crowd's delight. The woman seated beside me assured me that Haugen's pronunciation was perfect. Whether singing in English, Malay, French or Portuguese, Haugen's voice is the same—honest and gently piercing. Her most stirring performance, however, was sung in English, with a very personal take on Radiohead's "The Tourist." The encore—Cole Porter
Cole Porter
Cole Porter
1891 - 1964
composer/conductor
's 1928 hit "Let's Do It"— showed that Haugen can scat rather well, too. She is a very natural talent, and it won't be long before she takes the jazz world by storm.

Next up was the guitar duo of Ulf Wakenius
Ulf Wakenius
Ulf Wakenius
b.1958
guitar
and son, Eric Wakenius. Ulf Wakenius has enjoyed one of the highest profile careers of any European jazz musician, having played in bassist Ray Brown
Ray Brown
Ray Brown
1926 - 2002
bass, acoustic
's trio, and in Canadian pianist Oscar Peterson
Oscar Peterson
Oscar Peterson
1925 - 2007
piano
's trio for the final decade of that jazz legend's life. Wakenius certainly hasn't rested on his laurels since Peterson's passing, releasing a wonderful tribute to fellow Swede, pianist Esbjorn Svensson
Esbjorn Svensson
Esbjorn Svensson
1964 - 2008
piano
, Love is Real (ACT, 2008) and establishing a remarkable live partnership with Korean singer Youn Sun Nah
Youn Sun Nah
Youn Sun Nah

vocalist
, as well as playing a leading role on her two solo albums Voyage (ACT Music, 2009) and Same Girl (ACT Music, 2010).

An electrifying performance offered a taste of Ulf's upcoming release, Vagabond (ACT Music, 2012) and gave notice that Eric is a chip off the old block—a remarkably fluid, and technically precise musician. The opening number, "Vagabond" fairly tore out of the blocks, with note-perfect, lightning-fast unison lines and an electrifying solo from Ulf. Hungarian guitarist/composer Atilla Zoller's "The Birds and the Bees" was melodically and harmonically reminiscent of guitarist Wes Montgomery
Wes Montgomery
Wes Montgomery
1925 - 1968
guitar
and featured a soulful, beautifully paced solo from Ulf. The duo upped the tempo on "Lines for Oscar," switching between comping and lead roles in an animated tribute to Ulf's former employer.

From left: Ulf Wakenius, Eric Wakenius

Ulf's solo rendition of Keith Jarrett
Keith Jarrett
Keith Jarrett
b.1945
piano
's "My Song"—previously recorded on Notes from the Heart (ACT Music, 2005)—was an exquisite, harmonically sophisticated homage to one of his main influences. By way of contrast, "Breakfast in Baghdad" provided some of the most exhilarating soling from both guitarists, with Ulf using a plastic bottle at one point to hammer his strings. The finale was Weather Report
Weather Report
Weather Report

band/orchestra
's "Birdland." Ulf described its composer, Austrian keyboardist Joe Zawinul
Joe Zawinul
Joe Zawinul
1932 - 2007
keyboard
as "the greatest jazz composer to come out of Europe." Ulf Wakenius, for his part, ranks as one of the best jazz musicians to come out of Europe in the last thirty years, and this collaboration with his son Eric may mark the beginning of another exciting chapter in an illustrious career.

The Swiss are not generally known for manic behavior, but rising stars of the new jazz, Rusconi, will be remembered for a bit of communal, therapeutic screaming with a couple of thousand joining in, as much as for a refreshingly original, vibrant take on the piano trio format. After many years together, the trio are not exactly newcomers, but the overtly pop/rock rhythms and joyous disregard for jazz convention in It's a Sonic Life (Sony Music Entertainment, 2010)—a tribute to rock band Sonic Youth—served to elevate their profile. Now, the trio is the latest hot thing, and as its show demonstrated, for good reason.

From left: Stefano Rusconi, Fabian Gisler

Sonic Youth's "Sunday" opened the show, with pianist Stefano Rusconi serving early notice of his notable virtuosity, as bassist Fabian Gisler and drummer Claudio Struby laid down a driving rhythm. Gisler's jazz-accented drum solo led into a sung verse and an abrupt ending. "Alice in the Sky" from the group's forthcoming self-produced CD, Revolution had a slightly dreamlike ambience in keeping with a song inspired by "Alice in Wonderland." Crying cymbals and deep, brooding bass marked the intro. A series of pegs damped the piano strings, creating a kora-like effect on the tune's simple melody. A distorted arco, and a drone similar to a monastic chant, added to the surreal ambience. In closing, Rusconi removed and discarded them one by one in a curious piece of theater.

The screaming match proved to be a lot of fun, as well as three minutes of the cheapest therapy imaginable. Rusconi doesn't take itself too seriously, for sure, but Sonic Youth's "Hits of Sunshine"—with just a hint of John Coltrane
John Coltrane
John Coltrane
1926 - 1967
saxophone
's "A Love Supreme" about the bass riff— and new tunes "Berlin Blues" and "Autumn in Moscow" provided plenty of evidence of serious musicianship. Rusconi's highly entertaining set showed that melody and groove can go hand-in-hand with virtuosity. What more could you ask for?

Had there been an award for greatest instrumentalist at PIJF 2011, it might well have gone to Indonesian trumpeter Rio Sidik, who showed uncommon technical prowess and a deep knowledge of the history of his instrument. Sidik has drunk at the well of trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
1917 - 1993
trumpet
, Freddie Hubbard
Freddie Hubbard
Freddie Hubbard
1938 - 2008
trumpet
, and especially Miles Davis
Miles Davis
Miles Davis
1926 - 1991
trumpet
, but there was nothing imitative about his bravura style. Sidik's quartet boasts some of the finest young musicians in Indonesia today; the interplay was tight and the soling, particularly that of pianist Erik Sondhy and bassist Ito Khudhi, was adventurous and unrestrained. A subtler side to the quartet was displayed on singer/composer Joni Mitchell
Joni Mitchell
Joni Mitchell
b.1943
vocalist
's "Both Sides Now," a balladic vehicle for Sidik's passionate vocals—part whisper, part howl. Drummer Edy Siswanto's brushes and Sondhy's light touch on the keys provided sympathetic accompaniment. Sidik's voice grew impressively and at the end, his trumpet roared towards the night sky.

An charged set concluded with the funky "Barcelonetta." A charging rhythm section and wah-wah trumpet led the way. Kudhi's lively bass solo provided a bridge to a Latin piano riff and rousing group finale. The Rio Sidik Quartet was one of the most popular bands at PIJF 2011 and clearly has the talent to make a name for itself and reach a wider audience.

Sunday's headliner and festival closer was blues singer Nina Van Horn. A tattoo of John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd as the Blues Brothers on her right bicep held, as you might hope, a story. A former biker, Van Horn met fellow two-wheel acolyte Aykroyd in New Orleans, and upon listening to Van Horn's life story Aykroyd—who once drummed behind Muddy Waters—suggested that she really should be singing the blues. A penny dropped and Van Horn has never looked back since. She has also authored a book on the early blues women, the famous and the all but forgotten from the 1920s and 1930s, inspired by their fearlessness in addressing issues such as race, violence against women, sex, and drugs

Backed by a lively band in which guitarist Masahiro Todani excelled, Van Horn poured everything into a set of originals mixed with classics penned by the likes of Taj Mahal
Taj Mahal
Taj Mahal
b.1942
guitar
, Bessie Smith
Bessie Smith
Bessie Smith
1894 - 1937
vocalist
, Ma Rainey
Ma Rainey
Ma Rainey
1886 - 1939
vocalist
. It was pioneering guitarist/singer-songwriter Memphis Minnie
Memphis Minnie
Memphis Minnie
1897 - 1973
guitar
's rocking "Down in The Alley" which got the ball rolling (Minnie also gave the world "When the Levee Breaks," covered over forty years later by Led Zeppelin). Van Horn, who makes it her mission to preserve and promote the music of lesser-known women of the blues, sang Kate McTell's "God Don't Like It," warning of the evils of Prohibition-era moonshine taking the food from the children's bellies, and Victoria Spivy's "Dope Head Blues," a fast-paced romp. Drugs were a recurrent theme of many of these women's songs, and Van Horn led an acoustic version of Lil Green's "Knocking Myself Out," which Green certainly did, dying at the age of 34 in 1954. The slow blues of Bessie Smith
Bessie Smith
Bessie Smith
1894 - 1937
vocalist
's confessional "Me and My Gin" rounded up the songs pertaining to hedonism.

Nina Van Horn

The tireless Van Horn and band gave an animated performance of singer Paul Roger's haunting tribute, "Muddy Water Blues." Van Horn's own "Sister Sister" was a tribute to her pioneering blues sisters of 80 years ago, and "Goodbye New Orleans" was a lament for those exiled from the Katrina-battered city, with Todani's ringing guitar lines burning with the energy of Irish bluesman Rory Gallagher
Rory Gallagher
Rory Gallagher
1949 - 1995
guitar
. A powerful set concluded with bassist/rhythm guitarist Marten Ingle's Bo Diddley
Bo Diddley
Bo Diddley
1928 - 2008
guitar
-inspired "Everyday" and Van Horn's lively "He's my Man," though by then, unfortunately, the crowd had largely dispersed, and only true blues lovers remained to shake their booties, blissfully unperturbed by the light rain.

PIJF 2011 was the perfect illustration of jazz's inclusiveness and its pan-global nature. Jazz numbers were sung in English, Malay, French and Portuguese. American musicians played with Korean, Indian with Austrian, Indonesian with Malaysian, and Japanese with Dutch. Jazz journalists came from four continents. The widening of jazz's sources of inspiration was also clearly in evidence; the Great American Songbook was of course present, but inspiration was also drawn from David Bowie, Radiohead, Paul Simon
Paul Simon
Paul Simon
b.1941
composer/conductor
, Tina Turner, Joni Mitchell
Joni Mitchell
Joni Mitchell
b.1943
vocalist
, Weather Report
Weather Report
Weather Report

band/orchestra
and Sonic Youth. Jazz's deepest roots, in the form of the blues and ragtime, were on display and so too were more recent additions to the family such as art-rock/pop, electronica, and even punk. Jazz, it has to be said, has never been fussy about its bedfellows, and the PIJF 2011 succeeded in representing jazz in all its forms, warts and all.

The continuing and growing support of the government will be essential if PIJF director Paul Agustin's desire "to take the festival to the next level" is to be realized. The best music—and there was plenty of it at PIJF 2011— is built on trust, communication, give-and-take, the spirit of adventure, and as they say in jazz parlance, big ears. Penang Island has undoubtedly benefitted from the prestige and international profile that the PIJF has brought Malaysia's second smallest state. Augustin and his outstanding team have built up what is easily one of the very best small jazz festivals in Asia. And now, in partnership, the sky is the limit.

Photo Credits

All photos:Ziga Koritnik


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