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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.


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