Borneo Jazz 2012
This year's Borneo Jazz was notable for the energy levels of the performances, and this going-for-broke spirit was epitomized by bassist Schalk Joubert's Three Continents Sextet, the penultimate act of the final day. This line-up was playing for the first time in four yearshaving come together initially in the bassist's native South Africabut there were absolutely no signs of rustiness during a hard-driving performance that enthralled the crowd.
The sextethailing from Sweden, Norway, South Africa and Americaroared out of the blocks with an energetic tribute to keyboardist/composer Joe Zawinul. Alto saxophonist Shannon Mowday from Oslo gave the first of several solos notable for their barreling energy and ecstatic quality. The music tilted between a heady fusion stew powered by Joubert's electric bass with the three-horn front-line, and bubbling South African dance rhythms. The celebratory South African rhythms of "Afrodizzyact" featured fine solos from trombonist Karin Hammar and trumpeter Hildegunn Oiseth, and a rousing intervention by the leader.
Fire was replaced by finesse on the episodic "Ke Lefa," a poignant prayer for rain in times of merciless drought. Hammar's duet with the bassist contrasted boldly with the ensemble roar at the piece's end. The soloing, though uniformly excellent throughout, outweighed the collective voice at times. When the band slowed things downas on the "African Requiem"the subtleties of the music were highlighted. "Kayamandi" combined infectious dance rhythms with African vocal harmonies.
For the most part, this was a high-octane performance, and the funk of "El Niño"with some OTT grandstanding from Schalkand Paul Simon's "You Can Call me Al"sung by trumpeter/percussionist Richard Armstrongwas crowd-rousing festival music by design. The terrific energy of the performers translated itself to the crowd who gave the band one of the loudest ovations of the festival.
The final performance of Borneo Jazz 2012 fell to Koh Mr. Saxman and Takeshi Band. Koh Mr. Saxman has built his legend in Thailand over twenty years with his smooth/funky jazz, though he's an outstanding technician who can fire off dazzling bebop lines at will. In spite of the band's name, there was nothing remotely Japanese about the music, and instead, Koh regaled the crowd with typically melodic, and for the most part, easy-listening fare that ran from salsa-inflected numbers to heavy doses of funk.
Singer Benyapa Sukeenu lent her fine voice to a couple of numbers; a stirring rendition of Hoagy Carmichael/Stuart Gorrell's "Georgia on my Mind" featured swirling organ lines from keyboardist Pattaya Yusathit, followed by a Thai-sung ballad where guitarist Punnawit Suwattananum drew sounds from his strings evocative of the three-stringed Thai phin. Koh's epic alto solo crowned a beautiful song.
Ever the showman, Koh left the stage and went walkabout through the crowd, greeting people as he let loose some of his headiest soloing of the evening. Not many are those who can imitate alto saxophonist Charlie Parker while shaking your hand, but they broke the mold when they made Koh. Back on stage, Koh was joined by alto player Shannon Mowday, and the pair went toe-to-toe in an old-style cutting contest of furious intensity. It was just the sort of end the festivaland Koh's setrequired to send people home on a high, though not before the traditional Borneo Jazz jam-session brought most of the musicians together on stage for a final, clamorous send-off.
The festival organizers' stated aim is to make Borneo Jazz "an iconic event in the region." Whether this means attracting bigger names to play the festival and raising the bar artistically, or whether it means simply growing the event in terms of numbers, remains to be seen. There's still some tweaking to be done first, and the fringe events/workshops are certainly one area that could be strengthened. Nevertheless, Borneo Jazz is on the right path, and has all the potential to become as famous as its sister-festival in Sarawak, the Rainforest World Music Festival. Here's hoping that the quality of the music remains the driving factor in future editions of Borneo Jazz.
Pages 1, 5, bottom photos:William Ting
All other photos: courtesy of Sarawak Tourism Board/Pein Lee