9th Penang Island Jazz Festival: Malaysia, November 29-December 2, 2012
The 8th edition of PIJF in 2011 began with the experiment of Sundown@TSGa series of local acts who performed in the exotic surroundings of the lush Tropical Spice Gardenan award-winning tropical garden whose series of interconnecting paths meander through a naturalist's paradise of trees and plants that produce spices, poison, stimulants, hallucinogens and medicines galore. The success of last year's Sundown@TSG meant that a repeat was assured this year.
The four performances there and the dozen or so bands performing on three fringe stages at various local venues over the course of the PIJF fell under the umbrella of the Creative Malaysia Programmean initiative in conjunction with the Music Division of the Ministry of Information, Communication and Culture to promote creativity among Malaysia's young musicians by giving them a platform to perform. It seems to be working, as one of the significant changes in this year's PIJF compared to previous editions was a notable raising of the musical bar from the fringe stage bands.
Sundown@TSG got underway with singer/songwriter and guitarist Zalila Lee, who performed here last year as a backing percussionistanother of her many talents. Her opening number, "Time," showed that as well as being a purveyor of strong melodies, Lee writes songs that also carry lyrical sophistication. Her guitar playing was delicate and slightly folksyparticularly on the impressive "Paper Skin," and her simple melodies and delivery carried real emotional weight. Based on this strong performance, her forthcoming six-track EP "Shadows" should be deserving of wider media attention.
Michelle Lee's trio, known as Froya, has already achieved airplay, and it was easy to see the commercial appeal of the singer's gently seductive indie-pop. Rhythm guitarist Melina Ghani provided deft vocal harmonies and keyboardist David Ling's subtle colors underpinned Lee's appealing vocals. A little electronic ambiance and Ling's melodica on one number added nice textures. Reggae pop got everybody clapping in rhythm on another number, and the engaging set concluded with "Put on a Smile," with Ling's keys creating a lovely kora-like texture.
Next up, singer-songwriter veteran Rafique Rashid delivered one of the most entertaining performances of PIJF 2012. A pioneer of independent singer-songwriting in Malaysia in the late 1970s, Rashid has never recorded and rarely performs these days, so it was a treat for those in attendance to see this charming and disarming social satirist and guitarist in action. From the haunting lyricism of "Ghosts" and the humorous blues of "My Nervous System" and "Schizophrenia" to the socio-political stories in "Ignorance is Bliss"a gentle rant against apathyRashid held the audience rapt for the whole ride.
The five voices of Caipifrutaan a cappella group from Kuala Lumpurran through an energetic set of mostly jazz standards. "In the Mood," "My Favorite Things" and an up-tempo Duke Ellington medley rubbed shoulders with more reflective numbers such as singer Don McLean's "Vincent" and "When I Fall in Love." A winning interpretation of singer-songwriter Randy Newman's "Short People" provided a little comic relief, and a fine renditionand original arrangementof the George Gershwin/Ira Gershwin}}'s "But Not for Me" illustrated why tenor Aaron Teoh, baritone Joel Wong, soprano Tracy Wong, alto Lai Suk Yin and jazz pianist Wei Zhong came away with 2 silver medals at the World Choir Games in Graz. Even the rain couldn't dampen the spirits of performers or audience on the memorable opening evening of PIJF 2012.
The second day of PIJF 2012 showcased nine of Malaysia's brightest young bands in the Bayview Hotel, the Hard Rock Hotel and the Parkroyal Resort. Over days 2-4, a total of 12 bands performed, and there was a pleasing amount of jazz or jazz-inflected music in the performances, something which hasn't always been the case in previous editions of PIJF. With all the venues in walking distance of each other, it was possible to catch all the bands over the last three days of the festival.
Highlights on day 2 included the Faridian Jazz Trio, featuring guitarists Andrew Chew, Aaron Cargo and Kim Lim. They'd only been performing together for a couple of months but their layered voices blended well on four classics. Three-part harmonies on "Blue Rondo"given a bluesy twistwas followed by an impressive take on "Some Day My Prince Will Come," while "Corcovado" featured a nice solo from Chew and Cargo drew cajon-type rhythms from his guitar's body. "Sweet Home Chicago" saw Kim and Cargo take extended solos to round off an enjoyable performance from three promising jazz guitarists.
Singer-guitarist Darrin Rozells' finger-picking style brought blues and jazz in equal measure to an eclectic range of pop songs that ran from Ray Charles' "Georgia" and Oasis' "Wonderwall" to Metallica's "Sandman"featuring tortured vocals from Alex and Steely Dan's "Josie." Rozells can certainly deliver a song and his playing is exciting and soulful. A country-flavored yodel injected a bit of fun into his performance.
One of the most original sounding bands of the fringe was Dust, who explored musical terrain between Asia and the jazz idioms of the Americas. The seven-piece band, under the direction of tabla player Dr. Chan Cheong Jan, has been together for a year and rehearses every week. The experimental style of the band was heavily influenced by Indonesian group Boi Akih in its confluence of Asian melodies, vocals and rhythms with jazz improvisationthree compositions were by Boi Akihand as Dr. Jan later explained, Dust is trying to come at jazz from a different angle to the mainstream: "The main thing is not to repeat the past," he said. "Boi Akih gave us the inspiration and we have to start from somewhere."
Boi Akih's singer, Monika Akihary, would no doubt take pleasure in the knowledge that vocalist Wong Siao Ern sang in Akihary's almost extinct ancestral language of Haruku.
The arrangement of "My Favorite Things" featured original vocal cadences and the intro to "Country Road"sung by Lim Lee Pengwas also highly original; soon enough the arrangement slipped back to the song's familiar melody and form, but the attempt to do something creative with this perennial soundtrack to southeast Asia was, momentarily, highly refreshing. All the musicians study jazz piano at the University of Putra, so it was no surprise that some musical-chair regroupings went on, with Chin Yi Jun and Leong Xiao En sharing piano duties. Lui Wan Yen glided between piano, flute and vibraphones, the latter instrument employed mostly rhythmically in a series of infectious riffs.
The ecstatic, wordless singing of the original composition "Debris" was evocative of guitarist Pat Metheny's 1990's style, though in chatting with the musicians post-gig, Metheny wasn't on their radar, yet. On the samba-flavored "Sao Paolo," two musicians played the vibraphones simultaneously, with Mr. Faudzi's rhythm guitar quietly central to the Brazilian vibe. Wan Yen's piano solo was infused with the dancing Caribbean air of pianist Michel Camilo. These young students are still finding their way, but their curiosity and willingness to experiment is both exciting and encouraging. The main stage beckons.
Workshops Day 3 One of the most popular features of PIJF are the workshops. Cuban band Estudiantina Ensemble led the first one of PIJF 2012 in the gazebo at the Tropical Spice Gardens. A decent audience turned up for this Saturday morning workshop, which was a demonstration of various Cuban styles and a history lesson rolled into one. The band explained how Cuba was the first stop for the African slaves on their way to North and South America, though the first major external influence on Cuban music was European classical music.
The musicians spoke of the importance of the clave (which possibly evolved from wooden pins on the slave ships). Three guitars were a feature of Cuban bands in the early recording days when there was only one recording microphone, in order to amplify the sound, and in this sense Estudiantina Ensemble resembled a traditional band from the early 20th century.
Many of the recorded songs in those days finished with an abrupt bam-bam-bam, as the wax capturing the sounds was about to run out. The musicians explained how the kettle drums originated from Haiti and how timbales entered the fray with the popularization of mambo. The audience was treated to danzon, a couple of boleros and, capping a fascinating workshop, a song in the guaracha style.
Other workshops on Saturday included an introduction to a cappella, by Italian quintet Mezzotono, and a talk about the advantages and disadvantages of being an independent band by Irish rock 'n' roots band, the Deans. Rising star Butterscotch gave a memorable demonstration of her beatbox skills in the morning's final workshop, involving the audience every step of the way in a fun and inspiring manner.