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Live Reviews

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

By Published: December 21, 2011
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
'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.

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