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Bangkok Jazz Festival: Days 1-3

Ian Patterson By

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Days 1-3 | Days 4-6
Bangkok Jazz Festiva, Days 1-3
Central Plaza Bangkok
9-14 March, 2010

Rescheduled, relocated, revamped and resized; the annual Bangkok Jazz Festival has had something of a face-lift since its last full edition in 2008. However the surgery could be described as largely cosmetic because, in spite of all the changes, the musical programme was essentially the same as in previous years—one or two big names, a couple of artists from the Hitman record stable (who ship their artists over from Denmark) and the perennial crowd favorites of the Asia-Pacific circuit who ply a jazz which is toe-tapping and easy on the ear.

Moving the festival from its traditional venue of the laid back grounds of Sanam Suepa to the Central World Plaza, slap bang in the middle of the city seemed like a move to shake the festival up and modernize its image. Central World is one of several monolithic shopping malls which dominate the skyline in a thoroughly Asian urban setting. An angular, high-rise concrete tower and acres of climbing glass front—a window washer's worst nightmare—point optimistically to the city's future. At street level beats the eternal pulse of hawkers selling food galore and miscellanea of clothes and knick knacks as pedestrians jam the pavements. Spotlessly clean cars crawl torpidly along Thanon Ratchadamri like a terribly congested river, and right alongside, in the middle of this scene is a large marquee full of the sounds of jazz.

The impotent traffic was moving too slowly to generate any real noise, but unfortunately the marquee, black drape decked out in wall-to-wall Milky Way lighting, could not keep out the absolute racket of techno music blasting from the inauguration of a hair dressing salon in the same plaza which threatened to blow Christian McBride's Inside Straight off the rather high stage.

It really didn't seem workable but McBride and his excellent quintet got their heads down and got on with the job. Their return salvo in the face of the musical hostilities from next door was a bold opening thirty minutes of hard blowing and mighty swing. An exhilarating version of Miles Davis' "No Blues" saw the quintet really cooking. Vibes player Warren Wolf may not enjoy the profile of Stefon Harris or Steve Nelson, but technically there's not much distance between them, and his improvisations were a delight. Saxophonist Steve Wilson's less-is-more approach also made for beguiling listening, like following a great story teller. The thread which tied it all together was McBride's deeply sonorous bass, which captured the ear even at the height of the improvisation around him.

Barely pausing for breath the band launched into "Brother Mister" from Kind of Brown (Mack Avenue Records, 2009) with Wilson walking the no-man's-land, where melody and improvisation flirt with one another, creating a tremendous excitement, and only occasionally lifting the lid off the cooker to let off a billowing steam of high pressure notes.

McBride was superbly supported by drummer Ulysses Owens Jr. throughout. Owens Jr. exudes the same undemonstrative, classy time-keeping as the great Roy Haynes and it would be difficult to name a more pulsating, swinging rhythm section in jazz today. A beautiful turn from Wolf warmed the baton which was picked up by pianist Peter Martin, whose right hand runs and plunging left hand chords recalled Coltrane-era McCoy Tyner in thrilling style.

Wilson returned to the head and the half-hour opening statement concluded to cheers of appreciation from the crowd. The difficult circumstances were clearly not lost on the band as McBride said: "I must say that tonight is quite a challenge. We lost the first song to stereophonic house music but that won't stop us from playing hard. We've come too far to fold it in."

From left: Peter Martin, Christian McBride, Warren Wolf, Ulysses Owens Jr.

A slight change of tempo, perhaps necessitated by the need for a well earned breather saw the band slide into the graceful, always swinging "Brother James," dedicated to the late Jazz Messengers pianist James Williams. Wolf and Wilson both took solos as lyrical as they were dazzling.

Freddie Hubbard's "Theme for Kareem" opened with an impressive exploration from McBride who propelled the quintet tirelessly in double time. It was also a feature spot for drummer Owens Jr. As the closing number, extended statements also came from the other quintet members as expected, but there was nothing blasé about the intensity of execution, nor the collective drive of the unit. A standing ovation ensued.

An allotted one-hour set was way too short for such blazing music, even by festival standards and only the festival organizers will know why they didn't put McBride's Inside Straight on second for the closing set where they could at least have wiggled the encore the crowd would have loved.

It also gave Danish singer Annekei a very hard act to follow and her soul-pop and smooth jazz seemed tame by comparison, though she gave a spirited performance, particularly given the on-going shenanigans from next door.

Her set was peppered with covers by Stevie Wonder, Antonio Carlos Jobim and the Bee Gees, but it was her own compositions which stood out and in which she expressed herself best, sitting at the piano. Strong tunes like the anthemic "Letter" and the catchy "Love to Love" with its bouncy piano riff and spare bass groove recalled Stevie Nicks at times. The former featured a tasteful solo from Jack Lee on guitar-synth, which almost inevitably conjured up Pat Metheny.

Lee, who comes from Seoul, is one of Asia's finest electric guitarists and a highlight of the set was when special guest Ulf Wakenius joined the band to trade guitar lines on a Lee-penned track.

Annekei

A notable pop anthem from Annekei's album Touch (Columbia, 2009) featuring the singer on acoustic guitar concluded a very polished set, though one which from the crowd's point of view might have been better starting the evening as opposed to closing it.

One of the features of this year's Bangkok Jazz Festival is the spotlight given to young jazz talent from the city's universities. An open-air stage hosted two university bands each day although scheduling meant it was only possible to catch the first of the bands before the main program in the marquee began.

There were several noteworthy performances. Seven-piece band Fat Free from ABAC University impressed with a version of Herbie Hancock's "Maiden Voyage" and a lively rendition of Chick Corea's "Spain." Duriyaslip, a twenty-five piece big-band from Payap University played polished and assured versions of Jobim's "The Girl from Ipanema" and Juan Tizol's "Caravan."

Unfortunately the seemingly eternal political strife which plagues Thailand affected the festival, with Korean singer Youn Sun Nah and Chielli Minucci both withdrawing due to the tension surrounding the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship's planned mass rally, aimed at derailing the government. Although neither of the two performers' concerts coincided with the weekend rally, fears of disruption were not unfounded as at the tail-end of '08 thousands of protesters marched with impunity into Bangkok's International airport and camped there for a month, paralyzing air traffic.

The up-side was that the sole performer on the second night, the all-star band Soulbop co-led by trumpeter Randy Brecker and saxophonist Bill Evans (saxophone), were able to play an extended set which went down a storm with the near capacity crowd.

The band kicked off with a blazing fifteen minute blues-funk workout which set the tone for much of the set. The band is aptly named, with three ex-Miles Davis alumni in Evans, bassist Darryl Jones and guitarist Robben Ford providing plenty of bop, and guitarist Steve Lukather, who played on Michael Jackson's album Thriller (Epic, 1982) adding a touch of soul.

A long, bluesy workout reminiscent of Miles' underrated Star People (Columbia, 1983) saw terrific solos from Ford, Brecker and Evans in turn. Steve Weingart's minimalist dabs on keyboard added to the Miles-like texture of the tune.

"Big Fun" from was another high-energy funk number, peppered with hot solos. Lukather's blues-tinged "Never Walk Alone" slowed things down a little, and his emotive guitar playing demonstrated why he is one of the most recorded session guitarists ever. Evans' soprano caught the anthemic mood of this powerful number.

Bill Evans

Robben Ford's jazz-rock song "There'll Never Be Another You" featured a fine solo from Weingart and more fire from Ford himself. "Skunk Funk," the band's encore was built around drummer Rodney Holmes and Jones who both let loose, but like the rest of the set, funk and soul were at the core of the display—big fun indeed.

Norway's Inger Marie started off day three to a crowd of around fifty. The sight of so many empty seats can hardly have inspired the band who also had to contend with the competing music from the smaller stage less than a hundred meters away. The idea to showcase young jazz talent from the cities universities was laudable however the scheduling showed a distinct lack of foresight on the part of the festival organizers.

As a singer Marie is understated and her style intimate, her voice is perhaps best suited to the small club environment as her bass notes often fail to carry. Her slightly husky tone rarely abandoned the middle register and she led her band through a mostly slow-paced selection of introspective, blue-tinged songs. For most of the set Ulf Wakenius sat in with the band, adding a little color and occasional bite to the material.

The highlight of Marie's set was an undeniably beautiful and quite personal rendition of "You Were Always on My Mind." Rasmus Solem lent very effective support on Rhodes and vocals. A crowd-pleaser was the inclusion of one of King Bhumibol's many jazz compositions, the dreamy "Falling Rain." Unfortunately, the music from the second stage intruded, which in Thailand is possibly tantamount to lèse majesté.

Rising star singer-songwriter Melody Gardot has achieved considerable critical acclaim for her first two recordings, but live is where best to hear her music. The finger-snapping opener, with Gardot a commanding presence at the front of the stage, showed that a Phily band swings hard. The only non-Phily boy, New York reeds player Irwin Hall, lent chittering flute lines to the perfect set opener.

Anyone expecting or hoping for faithful renditions of the songs from My One and Only Thrill (Verve, 2009) would have been duly surprised. Gardot's plucking of the piano's innards, dissonant note splashing here and there, irritable saxophone growling and ominous cymbals made for a powerful intro to "The Rain."

Gardot imbues her songs with a smoldering intensity and a touch of the theatrical. Hall's blowing of two saxophones simultaneously recalled Rahsaan Roland Kirk in a rousing Brazilian infused intro to "Les Etoiles." The switching on of the Milky Way lights at precisely the beginning of the song was a simple but most effective touch.

Strumming a brilliant red Gibson guitar, Gardot brought an intimacy to "If the Stars Were Mine" and "Somewhere over the Rainbow." Bassist Steve Beskrone and drummer Chuck Staab on brushes lent gently swinging accompaniment and Hall's flute brought a lilting cheer to two outstanding performances.

"It ain't no church but it ain't no funeral either. You know what I'm sayin'?" was Gardot's gentle cajoling of the crowd in response to its less than animated part in the vocal call and response part of "Oh Lord." The crowd was in better voice when it came time to call the band back o stage for the encore, a brilliant version of Juan Tizol's "Caravan." Gardot's arrangement alternated hard swing with softly voiced vocals and the effect was to inject the excitement and sense of the exotic that Irving Mills lyrics intended and which so many versions fail to deliver.

Donning the top hat which had sat front stage through the entire set, Gardot thanked the crowd and exited with a swing in her hips and a swagger in her stride as the band played on.

Photo Credits

Page 1: 1 = Ian Patterson; 2 = Agus Setiawan Basuni/WartaJazz.com

Page 2: Vavaratee Na Chiangroong

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