9th Penang Island Jazz Festival: Malaysia, November 29-December 2, 2012
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.