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Live Reviews

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

By Published: December 21, 2011
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
' 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 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
, 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.

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