Kuala Lumpur International Jazz Festival: 19-20 May, 2012
Okura has a few strings to her own bow, having moved from classical violin to jazz following her move to New York. Her versatility has seen her collaborate with singers as diverse as David Bowie, Ziggy Marley and Terrence Howard, and saxophonists Michael Brecker and Lee Konitz. Okura has also performed in the internationally renowned Cirque du Soleil band. Add a number of film soundtracks to the resume and her role in guitarist Basya Schechter's exotic and wildly inventive group Pharaoh's Daughter, and it's clear that this is a musician with an open mind towards music.
Okura's PACJE sounded equally compelling exploring Sakomoto's compositions from the influential electronic group Yellow Magic Orchestra as it did arrangements of his most famous film scores. Sakomoto's urgent "Riot in Lagos" was the perfect set-opener; its driving grooves and strong melody providing drama in abundance. Okura and pianist Helen Sung put down early markers as to the improvisational strengths of this band. Plucked violin strings created the sound of the West African kora on the intro to "Afrasia," from Okura and the PACJE's outstanding Naima (Self Produced, 2010). This seamless musical blending of continents featured Derzon Douglas, switching between plucked bass and arco, and a fine flute solo from Anne Drummond.
The interplay between Drummond and Okura was central to the group's sound, and combined warmth and almost ethereal lyricism with flowing, improvised lines of some intensity. Okura's solo intro to "Tango" was a classically-inspired flight of breathless virtuosity, soon giving way, however, to a lilting collective melodicism that conjured dimly lit dance halls of Buenos Aires barrios. Drummer E.J. Strickland's fat beat provided the backbone to the funky "F.T.M.F." Sung's animated piano solo set the improvisational bar high, but Okura raised it and then some with a wildly entertaining solo that was jazz and folk-influenced in equal measure.
Okura left the stage for five minutes to highlight her excellent band, and it navigated the Yellow Magic Orchestra's "Ishin denshin," creating a jazz waltz of a rather blue hue. Strickland on brushes set the mood as Sung and Drummond took turns to shine. Okura returned to the stage, linking once more with Drummond in a surge of warmth. Italian violinist/composer Niccolò Pagannini's "24th Caprice" morphed into a fiery Cuban son, the highlight of which was Sung's imaginative, unaccompanied solo.
Okura's PACJE closed the show with the music of Sakomoto. The initial statement of the haunting theme to Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983) was met with applause, but this swinging version took everybody by surprise. The ending of great delicacy contrasted with the up-tempo "A Thousand Knives" that followedthe most distinctly Japanese-sounding Okura arrangement of Sakamoto's compositions.
In paying homage to Sakomoto, Okura and the PACJE revealed the common threads that unite all music. From Asia to Africa and the Americas, and from classical to jazzvia the inspiration of electronic musicOkura sees beauty everywhere and translates it into her own exquisite idiom.
There are few better tenor saxophonists aroundor exponents of bop-inspired, straight-ahead jazzthan Ernie Watts. As his most recent Oasis (Flying Dolphin Records, 2011) demonstrates, Watts is in top form these days, and this electrifying performance with his seasoned quartet provided another festival highlight.
Watt's musical partner of 20 years, pianist Jeremy Monteiro, took a vibrant extended solo on the swinging opener "To the Point," before handing over to Watts. Drummer Shawn Kelley has been playing with Watts and Monteiro for a decade, and his understanding with the tenor player was displayed in stunning fashion when the two went toe-to-toe in an exchange that brought excited roars and whistles from the crowd, who perhaps had expected that level of intensity at concert's end. At the height of the exchange it seemed as if Watts and Kelley were searching each other's souls.
Kelley switched to brushes on "Konbanwa," with Watts stating the beautiful melody of drummer Heinrich Kobberling's composition over a simple piano motif. Watts stretched out followed by veteran bassist Christy Smith, while all the while Monteiro maintained the piano motif. Monteiro was clearly chomping at the bit when his turn came, as he unleashed a tumultuous flurry of rising and falling lines. Like Watts, Monteiro is essentially a highly melodic player, even in the heat of improvisation, and he has rarely sounded better than on this gig.