Ron Cole Trio: Vientiane, Laos, January 21, 2012
MarkTwo Pub and Restaurant
January 21, 2012
The fact that a jazz trio came from Bangkok to play a swish new venue in the Laotian capitalone that wouldn't look out of place in the City of Angelssays something about the rapid pace of change in Laos. This was no embassy-sponsored gig either; this was private enterprise in action, something that Communist Lao is getting pretty darn nifty at. Another sign of these changing timesand a very encouraging onewas the guest appearance of several Lao jazz musicians, self-taught at that. This is newsworthy in itself, as jazz is about as far removed from the average Lao psyche as is hurrying.
The concert came about when jazz guitarist Vangthanousone Bouaphanh, a.k.a. Jazznova, invited his online guitar teacher, American Ron Cole, to come to Vientiane and play. A longtime Bangkok resident, Cole is a consummate jazz guitarist who impressed at last year's Thailand International Jazz Conference. He is also an undoubted romantic at heart, shouldering much of the cost to bring this trio from Bangkok to hook up and play with his student, plus host an afternoon jazz clinic to boot.
The trio began with "Soup Bone," a delightful Hammond-flavored blues which swung with a groove reminiscent of Wes Montgomery or Grant Green. Both these guitarists seemed to be references for Cole, who matched effortless lyricism with an exciting attack. Drummer Thitirat Dilokhattakarn provided inventive, in-the-pocket rhythms, and keyboardist Teerapoj Plitakul doubled as one half of the rhythm team and as an excellent soloist. Cole's mazy blues solo was followed by organ and drums in turn, before the trio returned to the head and signed off.
Original, was the trio's take on saxophonist/composer Wayne Shorter's eternally popular "Footprints." Shorter's beautiful melody was the glue in what was essentially a funk workout. Cole demonstrated that less is more in a couple of measured solos. Plitakul's charged keyboard solo had more than a little of the flavor of keyboardist/pianist Herbie Hancock, and throughout the course of the set Plitakul demonstrated that he also shares an openness in his playing, and versatility, with the elder statesman of jazz-funk keyboards. Dilokhattakarn's extended drum soloencased behind a glass sound wallbrought appreciative applause from the mostly young audience.
The trio became a quintet with the arrival on stage of singer Biby Vilinthone and guitarist Lao Jazznova. Vilinthone did a fine job on "Fly Me to the Moon" and Antonio Carlos Jobim's "The Girl from Ipanema," though she wasn't helped by a particularly muddy mic sound. Vocals are a prerequisite of any show for a Lao audience, as instrumental music is not the norm outside of the folkloric realm, so the more gentle swing of vocal jazz standards and the easy sway of bossa nova connected with the audience. Lao Jazznova really impressed with his brief but tasteful interventions on his Washburn, notably on "Fly Me to the Moon." As a jazz guitarist he's clearly the genuine article, with a non-flashy, soulful approach to his instrument.
When saxophonist Pao Udon joined the group, the energy levels were raised once more. Udon's vibrant solos revealed another talented musician with a feel for jazz, and it was a thrill to see these young Lao musicians holding their own on stage with the infinitely more experienced Thai and American instructors. Cole was generous with the spotlight and encouragement he afforded the Lao musicians, and perhaps held back just a little, refusing to steal the limelight. His faith was fully justified. A rousing interpretation of trumpeter Kenny Dorham's "Blue Bossa" saw lively closing statements from all. Vilinthone returned to sing "Sunny," and Cole remarked afterwards that this was only the second time she'd sung Bobby Hebb's much-covered R&B classic, which made her accomplished performance all the more impressive.
The high-energy, soulful performance was first rate, and won over the largely Lao crowd. The ex-pats in the audience expressed uniform delight at the quality of the music, and the mere fact that it was happening at allas the local music scene in Vientiane, though slowly improving, is still rather predictable. The young "'i- Generation' of Lao (i-Phone, i-Pod, i-Pad) has access to recorded music as never before, and is hungry for live music. Hopefully, MarkTwo and other venues in Vientiane will program more evenings of this type, and bring quality musicians of all stripes from the neighboring countries to help inspire budding Lao musicians, and to provide some relief from the tyranny of boy-band monopoly. Jazz is still very much in its infancy in Laos, but its baby steps are, so far, very promising.
All photos: Ian Patterson