Kuala Lumpur International Jazz Festival: 19-20 May, 2012
Singer Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On?" showed Harp's ability to blend soul with hot playing, and "Going Through Changes" revealed a melodic sensibility not unlike guitarist Pat Metheny. Rhythmically, Harp was clearly influenced by gospel and R&B, and at times, his music veered towards the smooth side of the jazz spectrum. Yet, when he really blew his horn, the bop idiom was plain to hear. This was highlighted on a delightful rendition of saxophonist John Coltrane's sublime "Central Park West," which moved from the original balladic territory to a double-time romp.
Singer/pianist Stevie Wonder's "Where Were You When I Needed You?" featured a lyrical synthesizer solo from Zermuethlen and an animated response from Harp on soprano. On the up-tempo, big-beat set-closer "Monday Speaks," Harp brought TR to the front of the stage where he cut loose in exuberant, bluesy mode. Harp's solo in turn was full of energy and passion, which fairly much summed up the set as a whole.
In a way, Harp provides a link between jazz's past and the present. Gospel musica notable part of his soundhad a huge influence on jazz for at least the first half century of its history, and the mixture of soul, funk and R&B that Harp purveyed were like signposts to some of the music that jazz has incorporated to a greater or lesser degree over the decades. Jazz for the ages.
One of the most eagerly awaited concerts of KLIJF 2012 was that of the trio lead by pianist Hiromi. She's been wowing audiences the world over with her quite breathtaking virtuosity for a decade now, but surprisingly, this was her first Malaysian concert. Accompanied by six-string bass pioneer Anthony Jackson on contrabass guitar, and five-time winner of the Downbeat Drummer of the Year award, Steve Smith, the trio presented material from Hiromi's exhilarating Voice (Telarc, 2011).
The album's title track opened the show in dramatic fashion, with all three musicians slipping in and out of fast unison lines and counterpoint. Hiromi's first solo was typically expansive and sweeping, riffing on a couple of chords, or repeating a figure over and over almost as resting points in between dazzling runs. Smith was equally fired up on his own thunderous solo. Spectacular stuff, but it was just a taste of what was to come. On the funky, New Orleans-flavored "Now or Never," Hiromi delighted in bashing the keys with her forearm in the middle of an endlessly creative solo. Hiromion electronic keyboardsand Jackson then threw each other short phrases in an entertaining tit-for-tat.
A swirling piano intro signaled the start of "Flashback," one of the more technically challenging numbers of the evening, and also one of the most melodically satisfying. A classically trained pianist from the age of six, it is no surprise that this idiom colors Hiromi's playing. Beethoven's Piano Sonata No 8, "Pathetique" was, after the initially quoted melody, really nothing more than a blues, though a delightfully meandering one at that. Smith on brushes and Jackson on hushed bass soon had to switch to bolder mode as Hiromi upped the pace, going from jaunty blues figures, to breathless runs up and down the keys that brought disbelieving laughter and applause from the KL crowd.
The title track of Hiromi's solo piano album, Place to Be (Telarc Records, 2010), combined tremendous right-hand technique with a finesse for which the pianist is seldom credited. Hiromi executed her trademark seemingly endless runs with a feather-light touch, slipping effortlessly into and out of "My Favorite Things" along the way. It was a wonderful performance and a highlight of the show, but there was still plenty of chops-busting playing to drool over. At the end of one dizzying solo, Hiromi peeled away from the piano as though she had simply run out of keys and gravity had taken over.
The standing ovation at the end demanded an encore, and the trio obliged with a slow blues. Jackson's gently paced solo paved the way for a final flourish from Hiromi, and her utterly distinctive voice seduced the ecstatic KL crowd one last time.
A standing ovation as Hiromi's trio left the stage led to another, twenty minutes later, to welcome legendary pianist Ahmad Jamal. There was a certain symbiosis at play, as Jamal had helped introduce Hiromi to an international audience a decade before. Jamal has been a Steinway artist for over fifty years and a magnificent exampleone of only three in Malaysiahad been brought in especially for the pianist. For the next hour-and0-a-half, Jamal wove his customary magic, supported by as good a quartet as any he's ever led.