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