9th Penang Island Jazz Festival: Malaysia, November 29-December 2, 2012
9th Penang Island Jazz Festival
November 29December 2, 2012
From pickup at the airport at 10.30pm to personal send-off five days later at 4.00am, Paul Augustin, the Director of the Penang Island Jazz Festival, is what you could call the perfect host. It's this personal touchinstilled in the festival staff's ethosthat sets the PIJF apart from many bigger and more famous festivals. It's no surprise therefore, with such personal attention the norm, that the good vibes translate to the musicians and from the musicians to the audience. Augustin has a good handle on what a festival is supposed to deliver and more often than not, PIJF does just that. PIJF 2012 offered up many highlights over four days.
Musicians love playing at the PIJF because the treatment they receive is warm and refreshingly relaxed, which is not to say that the festival's organization is in any way sloppy; in fact, just the opposite is the case. Augustin and his business partner in Capricorn Connections, Chin Cy, have managed to keep the same team together for nine yearsmany of the volunteers, the excellent sound team, the emcees and the tireless backroom staff keep coming back for more year after year, and the running of the festival is water tight. Turn around time between bands on the main stage, for example, only once exceeded the ten minute allocation and the sound, without exception, was excellent.
It's not just the PIJF staff who have shown tremendous loyalty throughout the years; having covered four editions of the PIJF for All About Jazz, I can vouch that many in the crowd have been regular attendees for years. From Penang, Kuala Lumpur and Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia and from Singapore, Thailand and even England, familiar faces turn up year after year at the Bayview Hotel in Batu Ferengi, come the first weekend in December. Such is the growing reputation of the PIJF that most people don't ask Augustin who's playing, as the overall quality of the music is guaranteed to be good, eclectic and entertaining.
The main stage program on Saturday and Sunday, the 1st and 2nd of December, offered a little something for everyone; traditional vocal jazz from Malaysian gal Elvira Arul and R&B from American veteran Madeline Bell contrasted with the ultra-contemporary, jazz-inflected beatbox vocal gymnastics of rising star Butterscotch. Though completely different in approach, all three women have been blessed with exceptional voices. PIJF is also pretty clued in as to what's hot in Europe, and for several years now the festival has showcased Norwegian talent. Past editions saw quartet In the Country and trio PeLbO grace the main stage and this edition continued an evidently reductionist trend by featuring the piano/saxophone duo Albatrosh. Solo Norwegian artists should apply now for PIJF 2013.
For fans of contemporary jazz piano, Korean Francesca Han's and Italian Kekko Fornarelli's trios gave strikingly contrasting, yet equally absorbing performances. There was a touch of novelty and plenty of virtuosity in multiple hang-drum player Rafael Sotomayor's ensemble TheArtOfFusion, but when it came to solo virtuosity, none could match the peerless guitarist Martin Taylor' set, nestled in the middle of the program on Sunday.
A bit of roots 'n' rock from incendiary Irish trio The Deans got the crowd's adrenaline pumping and made everybody forget about the soft-yet-relentless rain. The Deans may have been a left-field departure from jazz, but as Augustin said: "You've got to keep the customers satisfied." Penang is not New York, and the audience, whilst extremely open to musical adventure, is here for a good time. If the North Sea Jazz Festival can accommodate Tom Jones and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival can present Bruce Springsteenfor the same reasons---then who's going to get worked up about an electrifying Irish rock 'n' roots trio lighting up the PIJF?
The Estudiantina Ensemble closed the festival in a celebration of the melting-pot rhythms of Cuba, a reminder to the more overzealous jazz purists who preach from their all-seated municipal theater concerts, that jazzif there ever was such a thing as a pure formbegan as dance music.
PIJF represents the most visible sign of a growing arts scene in Penang. The month-long George Town Festivalheld in the UNESCO World Heritage town that's home to Indian, Chinese and Malays living in colorful juxtapositionpromotes local talent as well as international acts. Then there's the 2nd George Town Literary Festival and the newcomer, the 10-day In-Between Arts Festival. If the arts are helping to put Penang on the map as a culturally vibrant holiday destination, and bringing plenty of tourist dollars into the Malaysian state, then the PIJF can take a large share of the credit for leading the way.
- Creative Malaysia Fringe Stage Day 2
- Main Stage Day 3: Bittersweet/Albatrosh/Mezzotono
- Madeline Bell & Hans Vroomans Trio/The Deans/TheArtOfFusion
- Day 4: Community Drum Circle/Workshops/Island Jazz Forum
- Creative Malaysia
- Day 4: Main Stage, Elvira Arul/Francesca Han Trio/ Martin Taylor
- Wrap Up
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.
The main stage action got under way at 6:30pm with Bittersweet, the husband-and-wife team of guitarist/singer Frankie and singer Siriporn Rozells. Accompanied by Penang pianist/keyboard player Michael Kay, the trio provided light entertainment for a small crowd with a mixture of pop in the shape of Bill Wither's "Lean on Me" and "Just the Two of Us," jazz numbers such as the King of Thailand's "No Moon," a slice of Cole Porter and rhythm & blues with pianist Fats Domino's "Blueberry Hill" and the Jerry Leiber/Mike Stoller favorite, "Kansas City."
It was an enjoyable though not essential performance, and reflected festival director Augustin's loyalty to Malaysia's historic music figures. A couple of the fringe bands could arguably have got the festival off to a more vibrant start. It will be interesting to see what Augustin's policy is for PIJF's 10th anniversary in 2013, where there will surely be high expectations from the festival crowd.
The rain began to fall almost from the first minute of music on the main stage and no amount of chanting or folkloric remediesled by the shaman-like figure of perennial PIJF emcee Richard LaFabercould stop it for almost the entire evening. Placing a blade of grass on the ear or burying an onion together with a chili may stop the rain in the jungles of Borneowhere it's rumored Lafaber was raised by a former headhunting tribebut it didn't work in Penang. Nevertheless, the crowd gamely pitched up, sat on mats under umbrellas and had a good time regardless.
Swedish duo of tenor saxophonist André Roligheten and pianist Eyolf Daleaka Albatroshannounced its arrival on the progressive Norwegian scene with its impressive debut recording Seagull (Inner Ear, 2009). Albatrosh expanded to a quartet for Mystery Orchestra with Grenager and Talfjord (Inner Ear, 2010) but reverted to the original duo for Yonkers (Inner Ear, 2012), which was showcased almost in its entirety to the PIJF crowd. Before the duo took to the stage PIJF Director Paul Augustin addressed the crowd and paid tribute to Bo Grønningsæter , one of the organizers of JazzNorway in a Nutshell and a tireless jazz advocate who passed away on November 14th, aged 61.
Boppish unison lines announced "Pickup Truck," a lively opener with jagged phrasing meeting abstraction in a curiously compelling blend. The slower "Major Little" featured bold playing from Roligheten, though melody was central to the composition. The breathy, multi-phonic sax intro to "Coral Fox" sounded like muffled, distant foghorn, though melody, plaintive at first, soon emerged. Dale and then Roligheten raised the intensity before the saxophonist cut loose in an extended solo over somewhat ghostly piano. Dale's dreamy yet grand playing colored the impressionistic "Central Park."
The fast unison lines of "Linedance" gave way to more freeform give-and-take, and an absorbing forty-minute dialogue was rounded off with "Pannebrask," which glided from a church-like somberness to screeching sax and charging piano, before returning to the haunting melody. Albatrosh's performance was based on jazz tradition, but shook it up in compelling and often exhilarating fashion. The crowd was clearly engaged throughout Albatrosh's performance, providing further proof that this PIJF crowd is open to and appreciative of modern, adventurous jazz.
Over the years, a cappella singing has proved popular with the PIJF crowds; Australian group The Idea of North back in 2005 and German group STIX in 2010 were great successes, and this year, Italian five-piece Mezzotono continued the tradition. Tenor Fabio Lepone, soprano Daniela Desideri, mezzo soprano Francesca Leone, baritone Marco Giuliani and bass Andrea Marelli have been singing together since 2004 and by now have pretty much perfected their act. Hailing from Bari, Puglia, in southern Italy, the quintet sang entirely in Italian, except for one number sung in Barese dialect. Mezzotono's repertoire drew from the classic Italian songbook, and songs like "Cuando Cuando Cuando" and "Tu Vuo Fa L'Americano" were well known to the Penang crowd.
Upbeat, stylish and swinging, Mezzotono also injected a healthy dose of humor in its show. The final number, "Mah Na Mah Na," had the crowd joining in on Italian film-score composer Piero Umiliani's 1968 song, made universally famous by Sesame Street and the Muppet Show. As slapstick as Mezzotono's show may have been at times, there was no escaping the artistry in the five-part harmonies and the beauty in the harmonic dynamics at play.
From the power and grace of five voices to the power and soul of one; singer Madeline Bell has led a diverse career that has seen her enjoy success in the fields of gospel, cabaret pop, soul, disco, French chanson, blues and jazz, for fifty years. At 70, Bell looked in remarkable trim and her voice had clearly lost little of the range and none of the power that made her such an in-demand backing singer and collaborator for a huge number of artists, from singer Joe Cocker to former Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones.
Bell sang on Cocker's legendary rendition of the Lennon/McCartney number "With a little Help from my Friends" and it made for a powerful opening number. Whether on slower numbers like a jazzed-up "The Look of Love" or on more up-tempo numbers such as "Georgie Fame's "Anthem for the Band," Bell's gospel roots shone through. Pianist Hans Vroomans was given plenty of space to solo, while drummer Frits Landesbergen and bassist Frans Van Geest provided swinging support. "One Note Samba" involved a bit of audience sing-along. Songs by Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder and Elton John were all given quite personal arrangements but a few more of Bell's own soul hitsand she's had a fair fewwouldn't have gone amiss. One of the highlights of the set was Bell's gorgeous interpretation of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," which brought a loud ovation from an adoring crowd that had long stopped caring about the rain.
The Deans was formed in Galway, Ireland in 2007, and for the last three years has been cementing a reputation throughout Europe and America as an exciting live act. A 6-track EP, Roomworks (Moonsleeves, 2012) showed a band as comfortable with acoustic, roots music and three-part vocal harmonies as it is with electric, guitar-driven rock. The Band, Lonnie Donnegan, J.J. Cale, Bob Dylan, Irish Celtic rock band Horslips and jazz are all influences on the trio, and on stage the energy levels were significant. On the opening number, "The Captain," guitarist/vocalist and songwriter Gavin Dean's prowling, cart-wheeling arm and dramatic power chords evoked The Who's Pete Townsend.
Though "Follow the Sun" [to California] had a breezy, Beach Boys feel to it, with bassist Ronan Lally and drummer Gary Keon providing vocal harmonies in addition to a driving beat, Dean's fairly wild solo left its indelible stamp on the number. "Stretch Out and Lay Down" was a straight ahead rocker whereas the more pop-like "The Scratch" could almost have come from the hand of singer Roy Orbison. "Lonely Like Me" was a delightful anthem with a terrific vocal hook and driving drums and could be a huge radio hit if given half a chance. The rollicking "Penny to my Name" was a fitting climax to a remarkably energized set, with Dean's guitar growling and roaring like Irish guitarist Rory Gallagher.
Dean may or may not be pleased with the comparison to Gallagher, but the influence was there in his soloing, and the comparison, I must stress, is not lightly made; furthermore, I haven't seen a rock band with such bristling energy and melody combined, since Rory Gallagher's band in the 1980s. Before the festival, Augustin was quietly confident that The Deans would appeal to the crowd and, once again, he was right. Rock 'n' roots may be an indulgence in a jazz festival, but there's no harm in giving the crowd a little of what it likesnot when it's this good.
The closing act for the first day at the main stage was TheArtOfFusion, a five-piece band centered around the three-piece Hang set of Rafael Sotomayor. It was impossible to hangno pun intendeda name on the music, which was a fusion of influences ranging from jazz to ambient groove, and from psychedelic rock to Afro-beat. The metal instrument has become increasingly visible in jazz and world music bands in the last decade or so, with Portico Quartet and drummer/percussionist Asaf Sirkis notable exponents of an instrument that was created by Felix Rohner and Sabina Schärer in Switzerland in 2000. Sotomayor is perhaps unique in that he plays three and the PIJF crowd was treated to a virtuoso exhibition.
Sotomayer's playing was as furiously fast at times as a tabla player and as rhythmically grooving as a congero. This was essentially groove music, whether emanating from the hangs, Marc Inti on bass or Benno Sattler on drums. Tomek Witiak's guitar alternated between hard riffs and spacey psychedelic sounds that weren't a million miles away from the Ozric Tentacles, while saxophonist Lorenzo Dolce unleashed a number of rasping solos. It was an intoxicating mix. Drum 'n' bass rhythms gave way to reggae beats, which in turn made way for Arabic-sounding motifs and rhythms in a celebration of all music.
When Sotomayer soloed the crowd made its way to the front of the stage and cheered him on, earning the praise of the leader for maintaining the festival spirit in spite of the ceaseless rain. After a high-energy performance that lasted just over forty-five minutes, TheArtOfFusion was cheered back for an encore and delivered another dose of racing fusion with the power of a much larger ensemble, sending the crowd home happy.
The second day of the main program and the final day of PIJF began with the traditional Community Drum Circle led by enthusiastic members of the Aseana Percussion Unit. The largest crowd yet assembled for the 10:00am workshop shook, rattled, beat and thumped its way through a series of rhythms suggested mostly by the attendees themselves. Trumpeter Alexander Rodriguez Cala from Estudiantina Ensemble lent some burning Cuban melodies to the heady percussive gumbo. The attendees ranged in age from 7 to 70 and either grew in their shoes or rolled back the years, but the common denominator was immense enjoyment in each other's rhythms.
The workshops on Sunday were nicely varied, with guitarist Martin Taylor presenting an inspirational workshop geared towards the many guitarists in the audience. Through step-by-step demonstrations he made music theory sound as simple as Lego, and surely sent the attending guitar students home with renewed enthusiasm and belief.
A small but enthusiastic crowd was treated to an engrossing workshop from hang player Sotomayer. The workshop was held in the Gallery, where this year "Penang's Popular Music of the 1940s to 1960s"an exhibition co-produced by The Capricorn Connection and The Penang State Museumtook center stage. Photos of performers in past editions of PIJF were also displayed, as were a large number of percussive instruments from around the world that anybody was free to try out. One of the most striking instruments was a t'runga bamboo xylophone from the central highlands of Vietnamwhich sounded good even when played badly.
This main theme of this year's Island Jazz Forum was the question of jazz festival programming. Piotr Turkiewicz, Artistic Director of one of Poland's most progressive jazz festivals, Jazztopad, Jae Jin In, Artistic Director of South Korea's enormous Jarasum International Jazz Festival, Catherine Mayer, managing director of Europe's oldest jazz booking agency, Just Jazz, and the author all contributed their personal viewpoints on the topic, as well as the subject of festival sponsorship
In Europe, Turkiewicz said, it's getting harder and harder to secure sponsorship. When mediator Richard LaFaber put the same question to In, he caused laughter when he said: "For Jarasum, it's getting easier and easier." For Jarasum's 9th edition, held in October, some 200,000 people turned up for the 2-day festival. Such has been the growth of a festival that could easily have folded after three editions but for In's stubborn refusal to be defeated, that the festival team is having to re-landscape the festival siteby building a hill to accommodate the ever-increasing number of people pitching up year after year. Little wonder the sponsors are knocking on the door to be associated with this great success story.
Though significantly smaller than Jarasum, the PIJF is something of a success story itself. The fact that it's going for edition number ten in 2013, despite limited and fluctuating sponsorship, says a lot for Augustin's tenacity and the great work of his team. PIJF can also be considered a success for the quality of the music that is has staged over the years and day 2 of the main stage program was particularly strong in this the 9th edition.
The fringe performances did not disappoint. Having started off life as a Police covers band, the trio Terms Crisis has come a long way in a short time, jettisoning vocals to go instrumental, doing away with covers to write its own original material and coming up with serious jazz-funk that was at once melodic, sophisticated and grooving. Subtlety was also part of the brew, with guitarist Indra weaving melodic single note runs in tight interplay with bassist Amir Ridzwan and drummer Rizad. Soulful bass underpinned Indra's spare yet emotional improvisation on the impressive "In Denial," whereas "Hunchback" burned with the kind of intensity typical of guitarist Jeff Beck's better power trios.
Most of the bands on the Fringe Program were from Kuala Lumpur, but the trio Funkyardpurveyor of cooking jazz-rock/funkwas an exception, having made the trek from Kotakinabalu in Malaysian Borneo. Guitarist David Tebari's playing was inventive and passionate and bassist Aldoreo bin Marunsai and drummer Othnniel Luke Suinggi also impressed with their dexterity and energy. This trio won the Kotakinabalu Jazz Festival Band Competition in 2012, and whilst this small-scale jazz festival doesn't create too many waves on the international festival circuit, for Funkyard it may yet prove to be a significant launching pad to greater things.
Similar elements of jazz-funk and jazz-rock were common to five-piece Black Lightbulb, though a delightfully heavy soul vibe was a cornerstone of the band's sound, instilled as much by bassist Zaim Zaidee and drummer Aswin Gobinath as singer Wawa Dzulkifil vocals. Keyboardist David Spenser's virtuosity was tempered by the feeling of space in his playing and he showed his chops as a flautist on the introduction to Stevie Wonder's "Superstitious." This track has become something of an Asian anthem, thoughflute intro apartthe arrangement was predictable.
More satisfying was the infectious pop anthem "Beauty is What Matters," driven by Dzulkifil's powerful vocals and a searing metal solo from impressive guitarist Raja Farouk. There was a touch of singer Aretha Franklin on the up-tempo soul-funk of "Not Much to Do," featuring a great bass solo and some lovely, Bruce Hornsby-esque soloing from Spenser. Formed at the beginning of 2012, this young group already sounds tight, yet with a loose-limbed freedom in the collective playing that creates exciting chemistry. Black Lightbulb was another band from the fringe that could potentially make the jump to the main stage in the near future.
Somebody who made just such a jump was singer Elvira Arul; fringe stage performer in 2007 and now main stage opening act in 2012, Arul repaid PIJF Director Augustin's faith with a wonderful performance that highlighted her tremendous vocal strengthssomething that everybody here in Penang has known about for years. Her opening rendition of "Somewhere over the Rainbow" was an exquisite balance of finesse and power. Whether interpreting contemporary compositions such as India Ari's "Beautiful Flower" and the American's arrangement of singer Don Henley's "The Heart of the Matter," or more traditional fare such as saxophone great James Moody's "Moody's Mood for Love," Arul succeeded in making the songs very much her own.
It helped that instead of opting for a traditional drum, bass and piano accompaniment Arul ventured for more chamber-like intimacy by using cello (Florian Antier}, violin (Rohnie Tan), acoustic guitar (Dean Sim) and occasionalbut most effectivebacking vocalist Samantha de Lune. The rich timbres lent further sophistication to Arul's arrangements. The late Etta James's "At Last" was a good vehicle for Arul's emotive jazz-blues tenor, with violin and cello in singing, bluesy support. Arul's own "Simple Love"an anti-war songproved that she's a fine composer too, and put the icing on a memorable performance.
To take things to the next level Arul may have to risk a little more, as the Asia-Pacific rim is brimming with fine voices knocking out jazz cover versions in hotels and resorts. More original material of the caliber of "Simple Love," coupled with her feel for a striking arrangement, would probably be the way to bring greater attention to her undoubtedly fine voice.
The year 2012 has been a busy and significant one for Korean pianist Francesca Han who recently relocated to her home country after several years based in New York. Not one but two CDs have seen the light of day; a quartet outing featuring trumpeter Ralph Alessi, Illusion (Audioguy Records, 2012) and her first solo piano outing, Ascetic (Audioguy, 2012). Accompanied by bassist Lee Soon Yong and drummer Cho Nam Youl, Han showcased compositions from Illusion in a storming set that was a reminder of the depth of young jazz talent that continues to emerge from South Korea.
Han's dynamism and explorative nature was felt from the first notes of the opening number and there wasn't a cliché to be heard in her exciting improvisations. Youl's mallets led the way on "Shaofinish," setting the tone for Yong's lyrical bass solo. As the trio gained collective impetus Han delivered a pearl of an ever-evolving solo, where classical currents ghosted beneath her dominant jazz vocabulary. Her attacking style made for arresting listening. A sure highlight of the short set was an incredibly tender delivery of pianist Bill Evans "Blue in Green." The trios signed off as it had begun in an exhilarating double-time charge with Han saving her best to last; her extended improvisation earned heartfelt applause from the crowd.
Following guitarist Tommy Emmanuel's barnstorming performance at PIJF 2011, this crowd has come to expect rather a lot from solo guitarists. In Martin Taylorwidely hailed as the world's greatest exponent of solo finger-style guitar playingthe Penang crowd was treated to another dazzling six-stringed performance. Taylor began with a delicate reading of "I Fall in Love Too Easily" where he displayed remarkable harmonic breadth and depth. A delightful interpretation of "I Won't Last A Day Without You" followed, composed by the songwriting team William and Nichols, whose name, Taylor suggested, sounds like a posh London department store.
A dancing take on "They Can't Take That Away From Me" led into the beautiful, self-penned "True," which underlined that the feeling that Taylor transmitted in his playing makes him a great guitarist just as much as his virtuosity does. Another original, "Down at Cocomos"written when Taylor lived in the Caribbean in the 1970s was eminently danceable, with Taylor capturing the sound of steel drums and weaving amazing simultaneous lines. A stunning blues intro led into a highly personal rendition of "Georgia," before Taylor upped the tempo, first with a breathless "I've Got Rhythm" which sounded as though violinist Stéphane Grappelliwith whom Taylor collaborated for 11 yearswas right alongside him.
This was followed by Brazilian pianist Luiz Eça's "The Dolphin," which has become something of a jazz standard. Best known as a samba and bossa nova pianist, the classically trained Eça's myriad rhythms and advanced notion of harmonics make him an ideal source of inspiration for Taylor, who paid wonderful tribute to Eça and the undulating drama and beauty of the original composition. The closing number, singer Norah Jones' "I Don't Know Why," underlined Taylor's penchant for extracting the most from a simple melody and recasting it in an intricate web of exhilarating interweaving lines. Taylor's artistry will surely go down as one of the best performances in the first decade of the PIJF.
Butterscotch/Kekko Fornarelli Trio & Ruso Sala/Estudiantina Ensemble Artistry of a very different kindbut artistry it was undoubtedly wasfollowed in the form of singer/beatboxer Butterscotch. Since her appearance as a finalist on NBC's America's Got Talent, Butterscotch's star has been in the ascendancy. Prior to that, at just 20 years of age she won the first World Hip Hop Beatbox Women's Championship in 2005. Proving that it was nothing personal, Butterscotch's then kicked the men's butts as well when she was crowned West Coast Beatbox Champion two years later. Invitations to record followed, with singer/guitarist George Benson's Songs and Stories (Concord, 2009) and the bass triumvirate of Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller and Victor Wooten on Thunder (Concord, 2010).
Butterscotch is increasingly in demand for live performances throughout America, Europe and Asia, and little wonder. The first three numbers, "Perfect Harmony"recorded with Marcus Miller,"The Very Thought of You" and "Summertime" saw Butterscotch singing and accompanying herself with a rhythmic arsenal of impressive range; hi-hat, snare and bass provided the foundations and drive for seductive melodic lines, given warmth by her vocal 'trumpet' phrasing. It's worth checking out You Tube to see how Butterscotch made bassist Stanley Clarke and drummer Lenny White more or less redundant in a jam that ended up as essentially a duo improv with pianist Chick Corea.
Switching to piano, Butterscotch gave an intimate and contemporary rendition of "My Funny Valentine." Her final number, "Obsession," was delivered, mic in hand, while a backing tape brought bassist Marcus Miller onto the Penang stage as Butterscotch unleashed an awesome rap-cum-DJ spin that closed her beguiling set on a high. Butterscotch's invitations to numerous jazz festivals coupled with her high profile recordings and jam sessions have all been achieved without a CD to her name; that's coming some time in 2013 and who knows where this stunning talent will head to after that?
Italy's jazz scene is one of the most vibrant in Europe, producing a seemingly endless source of talented young musicians. Pianist Kekko Fornarelli is certainly one of the most interesting pianists to have emerged from there in recent years, garnering favorable reviews for his debut, Circular Thought (Wide Sound, 2005). Fornarelli presented songs from his third CD, Room of Mirrors (AUAND Records, 2011), and began with a single-note piano ostinato that coaxed a strong rhythmic pulse from drummer Dario Congedo and bassist Luca Alermanno. The dynamics between the three suggested the influence of Esbjörn Svensson Trio though in the mixture of melodic hooks and subtle electronics, classical inspiration and pop-chord immediacy there was also a personal, stylish trio statement.
A driving drum 'n' bass rhythm coupled with subtle electronics colored "Dreams and Compromise," and throughout the performance Congedo and Alermanno conjured deep grooves and delivered bustling energy. The slow paced lyricism of "The Flavor of Clouds" contrasted with the up-tempo, blues-inflected "Coffee and Cigarettes," though at whatever tempo Fornarelli soloed, he was never short of ideas.
The trio was joined by Catalan singer/songwriter Ruso Sala, who had composed English lyrics for Fornarelli's atmospheric composition "Room of Mirrors." Whilst there was obvious empathy at play between the trio and singer on that intimate number, the Catalan-homage, "La Mia Terra"an epic folk anthemgave freer rein to Sala's strong, lilting voice and capped an arresting performance in some style.
The honor of closing PIJF 2012 fell to Cuba's Estudiantina Ensemble and the septet rocked and seduced the crowd with guaracha, danzon, son and boleros in a fittingly festive, celebratory finale that invited everyone to dance. The performance, which served up many classics of the Cuban repertoire, was full of good-natured humor and raunchy playfulness. The PIJF hasn't always finished with a bang in previous editions, but this time it most certainly did.
The Penang Island Jazz Festival 2012 was a success on several levels; first, extremely healthy audience numbers, in spite of the rain, was as good a reflection as any of the festival's growing reputation as a must-see event for many Malaysians, ex-pats and tourists alike; second, the high quality of the bands on the Creative Malaysia fringe stages suggested that not only are more bands viewing PIJF as a good platform for furthering their careers, but the organizers have raised the bar. Finally, the near-faultless organization and running of the PIJF makes it a model for other festivals in the region to aspire to. With exciting plans for PIJF's 10th anniversary birthday bash in 2013 already taking shape, there'll be only one place to be in Malaysia as November gives way to December next year.
All Photos: Courtesy of Michael Lee