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Live Reviews

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

By Published: December 21, 2011
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.


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