Penang Island Jazz Festival: Penang, Malaysia, Dec 1-4, 2011
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 Lingwho stood in with only an hour's noticedeserves 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 actsperhaps supported by up-and-coming local musiciansin 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 Unita.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'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, Elvis Presley and Cassandra Wilsonwas followed by another jazz standard, Henry Mancini/Johnny Mercer'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.