Borneo Jazz 2012

Borneo Jazz 2012
Ian Patterson By

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Borneo Jazz Festival 2012
Miri, Sarawak, Borneo
May 10-12, 2012
Borneo Jazz—held in Miri, Sarawak semi-autonomous state, Malaysia—has grown steadily since its inaugural edition in 2005, going from 3,000 spectators seven years ago to over eight thousand today. This growth is a reflection of the successful planning and promotion by the festival organizers and an indication of the Malaysian public's hunger for international music. And on a broader level, perhaps, it's another sign of the growing appeal of jazz festivals in Asia as a whole. Happily, the unpredictable tropical weather followed the weekend's script, bathing festival-goers in warm sunlight in the early afternoon and keeping the rain at bay for both days of the festival.

It's worth putting the success of this festival in a wider context; there are no jazz clubs in Miri and there are no fully fledged Miri jazz bands either. Country and Western music is the norm as far as live gigs go. In Miri, Garth Brooks trumps trumpeter Miles Davis, and John Denver overrides saxophonist John Coltrane. The situation is little different in Indonesian Borneo or in Brunei, the other two countries that share Borneo, the third largest island in the world. So, it's no small feat that improvisational musicians from South Africa, Scandinavia, the USA, Holland, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, France and the Caribbean should converge here and draw such a large, enthusiastic crowd.

The day prior to the festival proper saw local and international media gather to hear representatives of the Steering Committee and Sarawak Tourism Board outline their vision for the festival. Borneo Jazz, said Dato Rashid Khan, the CEO of Sarawak Tourism Board, is designed not only to boost tourism to Sarawak—a province rich in rainforest, biodiversity and stunning national parks —but to promote the economic and social development of Miri. In addition, it is hoped that this signature tourism event will spur national and foreign students to come to Miri to undertake further education. According to the Ministry of Tourism's official figures, Borneo Jazz 2011 saw a growth of 23% over the previous year in terms of attendees, and an increase of 16% in foreign visitors attending the festival, mostly expatriates living in the neighboring semi-autonomous state of Sabah and in Brunei.

Artistic Director Jun-Lin Yeoh—who has returned to the helm of the festival after a gap of four years—explained the idea behind the programming: "Our philosophy at Borneo Jazz is jazz plus," she said. "It has to appeal to as many different tastes as possible." This means that Borneo Jazz presents the full rainbow of jazz, with the occasional blurring of genres. In these challenging economic times, it is perhaps a wise ploy to mix it up, as major festivals such as the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival , the Montreal Jazz Festival, and the genre-bending trail-blazer, the Montreux Jazz Festival have increasingly demonstrated with the passing of the years.

For the past few editions of Borneo Jazz, the festival organizers have sought to lessen the carbon footprint of the festival by following green initiatives in the day-to-day running. Following the press conference, a tree-planting ceremony was held at Curtin University campus where 100 saplings were given a home. When you consider that trumpeter/percussionist/singer Richard Armstrong's route to Borneo Jazz 2012 saw him fly from San Francisco to Los Angeles, from there to Tokyo, and then on to Kuala Lumpur and finally, Miri, then it's clear that tree planting is no mere cosmetic exercise but rather an increasing necessity to redress the ecological balance.

The official opening of Borneo Jazz 2012 took place on Thursday evening, on the grounds of the festival's home of these past seven years, the Park City Everly Hotel , with a dinner for media, sponsors and guests of honor. A colorful performance of traditional Sarawak dance and music reminded everyone that they were in Borneo, and an animated set from Schalk Joubert's Three Continents Sextet was a reminder that jazz is, and always has been, the result of a confluence of musical traditions and cultures.

It hasn't always been easy for the festival organizers to find Malaysian bands of international-festival caliber, but over the years Borneo Jazz has admirably sought to showcase Malaysian talent whenever possible. Thus it was that Malaysian band F.V.E. got the festival underway on Friday afternoon. Playing just its second jazz festival, this band from Kuala Lumpur gave a confident performance which mixed jazz fusion interpretations of the Beatle's "Eleanor Rigby" and Nirvana's "Smells like Teen Spirit" with original material.

Formed in mid-2011, the young band wouldn't have surprised anyone by performing only covers. but in fact, the original compositions stole the show, impressing for their melodic flow and patient construction. This, and the combination of saxophone, electric guitar and Timothy Toh's jazzy piano, evoked the anthemic spirit of Scandinavian group Jazz Kamikaze, particularly on "What's in a Name" and "Tinkerbelle," where the music built slowly to epic finales. Miri boy, guitarist Dean Sim's clean, R&B-influenced lines dovetailed with saxophonist Jeffrey Kamar and the two exhibited a fine balance between passion and discipline.

The rhythm section of bassist Feri Lau and drummer Omar Ibrahim was solid throughout, moving smoothly from rocked-out to funkier grooves as on "Trip It," a Grover Washington-sounding number. F.V.E. takes its inspiration where it finds it, as an instrumental version of Rihanna's "Don't Stop the Music" proved. Another melodic slice of Indie jazz laced with keen soloing closed a crowd-pleasing set. F.V.E has its own sound, as much influenced by R&B and smooth jazz as by Indie rock and pop. With encouragement and the necessary support, these accomplished musicians have a bright future ahead of them.

After devoting twenty years of her life to classical piano, Indonesian pianist Nita Aartsen began developing the jazz idiom in her playing. However, it was hearing trumpeter Arturo Sandoval that really changed Aartsen's artistic direction and she was soon incorporating Latin jazz into her music as well. Adi Prasodjo's congas and shakers set the tone for some heated playing from Aartsen on the opening number, which incorporated the melody from Mozart's Symphony Number 40. The pianist also slipped Beethoven's "Für Elise" in between the salsa rhythms of the stirring "Good Times" and "Minuet in G" by Bach into the gently swinging finale "Selamanya."

Aartsen displayed considerable chops with a sweeping command of her keys, though her interpretations of classical music were occasionally just a tad too literal to be really engaging; the same could be said for her take on pianist Dave Brubeck's "Blue Rondo à la Turk." Much more satisfying was Aartsen's original interpretation of John Coltrane's "Naima." Prasadjo's emotionally charged Indian vocals—accompanied by wind chimes and percolating percussion—brought cheers from the crowd. Switching between acoustic and electric piano, Aartsen steered the quartet into heady jazz fusion territory reminiscent of Weather Report.

Bassist Adi Darmawan and drummer Sandy Winarta had to be at the top of their game to follow the pianist, who switched tempo and tone with regularity. Winarta is much touted in Indonesia as one of jazz's most exciting emerging drummers, and he lived up to his billing, with an energized, technically impressive display. Stage lights and the very high humidity meant that Aartsen and her quartet's tremendous energy resulted in pools of sweat on the stage; it's safe to say the quartet was cooking in more ways than one.

There must be an unholy number of truly outstanding a capella groups in Germany if SLIXS was billed in the festival program as "one of the best" in the country, as witnessing their polyphonic acrobatics it's difficult to imagine a more exciting, or fun a capella group. Until recently the sextet had been called Stouxsingers, but as most folks were unable to pronounce the name correctly, the name was dropped in favor of the shorter, slicker SLIXS.

The term a capella comes from Italian and means "in the style of the church." Certainly, if church was as sexy, jaw-dropping and fun as SLIXS' performance, then church attendance would be increasing rather than declining—as is the trend—in Europe. The sextet kicked off in funk mode with Prince's "Sign of the Times." Gregorio Hernandez on lead vocal was buoyed by "drummer" Karsten Muller and "bassist" Thomas Piontek, who could justifiably have been in the running for best rhythm section of the festival award.

Group founder and "arranger of silliness," Michael Eimann, was direct in his assessment of the group's influences during the morning press conference: "It's a bastard of all styles," he stated happily. Indeed, what other name could you give to a group that incorporates jazz, pop, funk, gospel, R&B, choral, soul, boogie, scat and the odd William Shakespeare sonnet?

Perhaps the six singers have a greater number of articulators than the average being, for they produced an uncanny array of sounds. Eimann on "muted trumpet" traded licks with Konrad Zeiner's "trombone" on the Beatles' "All My Loving," and the sounds of the jungle—quite appropriately in Borneo—colored "Humanizoo," with Zeiner reproducing the rumbling growl of a didgeridoo to chilling perfection. On this latter number, crowd participation played a big part, with several thousand girls ("zoodle-dee-down") and boys ("ba doodle de bap") scatting on cue in a tremendously fun call-and-response.

The Pointer Sisters' 1973 hit "Yes We Can Can"—with Katrina Debus stealing vocal honors—and Al Jarreau's 1983 hit "Boogie Down" provided a dose of serious funk for the ages, with the latter segueing into Kool and the Gang's 1973 hit "Jungle Boogie," carrying the band and the crowd out on a high. The sheer fun factor in SLIXS'live performance belied the seriousness of its art. Who needs instruments to rock the joint?

Friday's closing act, the New Cool Collective gave, arguably, the standout performance of Borneo Jazz 2012. A pity then, that the majority of the crows skedaddled before the band came on, leaving just a few hundred to witness what was undoubtedly one of the best concerts in the festival's seven-year history. Founder/saxophonist Benjamin Herman was gracious in his thanks to those in the crowd who had stayed the course, but the scant crowd begs the question, what on earth was more enticing in Miri at 11 0'clcock on a Friday night?

It's been a long, strange trip since New Cool Collective started out playing live with DJs in 1993. Since then, this eight-piece, little-big band has succeeded like few other in drawing crowds on the international club scene, playing at the biggest European pop 'n' rock festivals, collaborating with Afro-beat drumming legend Tony Allen, and earning jazz kudos in the bargain. Mambo-ish vibes and disco-funk cool worthy of Boney M rubbed shoulders with Jamaican ska, salsa and Afro-Caribbean flavors. Succinct yet cutting solos peppered the set, with insistent rhythmic grooves—both hot and chilled—underpinning everything.

"Frankie & Grace," from Eighteen (Dox Records, 2011) was typical of the band's chameleon nature, moving from dance-floor funk to ska, while maintaining a chill-out groove. "Jules"—named after Rotterdam poet Jules Deelder—sounded like a modern Dizzy Gillespie big-band, with guitarist Anton Goudsmit carving out Marc Ribot-ish lines over a pulsating percussion foundation. Harmonized African harmonies, cracking conguero and timbale rhythms, unison trumpet and saxophone lines, all colored the penultimate number. Deep grooves, Afro-Caribbean chants, and short, yet cutting solos from Herman, keyboardist Willem Friede, drummer Joost Kroom and Goudsmit rounded off a memorable set in some style.

In festival terms, seven years is still young. Borneo Jazz, like any other festival, is still finding what works and what doesn't work quite so well. Tweaks and modifications are inevitable from one edition to another and are part of the process of forging a lasting identity. In 2011 the introduction of workshops in the festival grounds and one other venue in Miri announced the intention to provide educational outreach to the Miri public.

Unfortunately, this worthwhile initiative was canned this year. Perhaps the endeavor had been considered unsuccessful in light of the fact that practically the only people in attendance had been members of the media corps, but if that's the case, then the festival organizers are giving up before they've truly started. On Wednesday before Borneo Jazz had begun, SLIXS gave a private performance to 1,200 children at the Riam Road Secondary School, along with performances by the school Marching Band and cheer leaders, plus a choir singing German folk songs. The mini-festival was in honor of guest Dr. Guenther Gruber, the German Ambassador to Malaysia who was visiting from Kuala Lumpur. By all accounts, the event was a riot of fun and good music, and resulted in a goodly number of the school children attending the jazz festival on Friday and mobbing SLIXS like rock stars after its concert.

It would be fairly simple in principle for Borneo Jazz to invite music students from Miri's schools and universities to attend and participate in music workshops. From schools and college campuses to upscale hotels, there is no shortage of venues. The chance for youngsters to sit in with professional musicians could only be inspiring. No doubt, many would be motivated to attend the festival, and the accumulative effect would be a large dose of free—and enduring—publicity for Borneo Jazz.

A successful addition to this year's edition of Borneo Jazz was the early afternoon performance on both days of a local marching band. The Chung Hwa Miri Marching Band has enjoyed international success, winning a marching-band competition in Italy in 2011 against bands from over 20 countries. Normally comprised of 80 musicians and 20 dancers, the ensemble was reduced to 50 for the two performances, which ran through compositions from musicals and popular music. The musicians—ranging in age from 12 to 18—were obviously enjoying the occasion, swaying to the rhythms, chanting and clapping. At its best, the music evoked the exotic sounds of Duke Ellington's suites, but this performance was all about fun and the joy and playing, with swinging renditions of Beatles and Abba songs too.

The musicians are highly dedicated to the cause, practicing every day from 6:30 a.m. to 7:00 a.m. before school, and again in the afternoon from 2:30-4:30 p.m. every day. The only break in this routine is on Sundays and at Chinese New Year. With that kind of dedication, any success the band enjoys is fully merited. Seventeen-year-old saxophonist Elvin Sim took an impressive solo on the infectious "Cha Cha Flamenco." He has been playing saxophone for just five years but already shows great maturity on his instrument.

The section playing was tight and disciplined, and although the odd mistake slipped out, such imperfections are tolerated as a natural result of playing for fun. The performances were warmly received by a small-but-enthusiastic crowd. Hopefully, such performances will become an annual feature of Borneo Jazz. Every opportunity should be afforded these youngsters, as many of the musicians—like the talented Elvin Sim—will be forming their own bands in the future, and with luck, performing on the main stage at future editions of Borneo Jazz.

Saturday evening got rolling with the festival's only straight-ahead jazz band, Tropic Green from Singapore, led by pianist/composer Susan Harmer. Keeping a seven-piece jazz band together in Singapore is something of a success story in itself. The four-pronged front-line of trombone, tenor and alto saxophones plus trumpet lay at the heart of Harmer's original compositions. Her skillful arrangements created a beautiful group voice while allowing the individual musician to shine.

Short-ish pieces varied stylistically, from the gently lyrical "Little Bird" and more up-tempo numbers like "Flight," to swinging Latin jazz. Harmer showed touches of fluidity on piano, but she's a composer, arranger, director, and pianist—in that order. Her role was that of accompanist, knocking out great vamps as on the grooving "Camelia," and generally steering the band. The crowd was treated to a slice of Cubana-bop on "Patter" when drummer Pablo Morales was joined on stage by his father, Mario, a veteran percussionist in the Parisian Cabaret in the National theater of Cuba. Riffing brass punctuated a thrilling exchange between drummer and conguero.

"Colugo" was specially written to showcase Japanese bassist Hiroaki Maekaw, and he gave a technically impressive solo which drew inspiration from jazz-funk giants Marcus Miller and Stanley Clarke, bringing excited cheers from the crowd. This number was followed by a beautifully serene number; building slowly from piano, the front line of Fabian Liang's alto sax, Rufus David's soprano and Chua Loo's trumpet interweaved glowing lines before the rhythm section joined and upped the tempo. Rufus' solo was strong and lyrical, and he impressed throughout the set.

Tropic Green's strong set climaxed with "Beach Republic," a straight-ahead, boppish celebration. Alto saxophonist Liang and trombonist Regan Wiekman took turns stretching out, but as with all the compositions, it was the rousing collective voice—shaped by Harmer—that stood out, winning over a delighted crowd.

Next up was singer Annick Tangora's quartet, which ran through a highly polished set of songs from the singer's album Confluences (AMES, 2009). The title of the album is appropriate, as Tangora's music draws from myriad sources: jazz, bolero, rumba, French chanson and the rhythms of the Caribbean, all colored the music. Tangora's powerful voice was matched by her commanding stage presence. The warmth of her personality—whether singing in French, Spanish, Portuguese or English—infused and defined the music.

The performance began with the Cuban air of "Inolvidable," Julio Gutiérrez' popular bolero from 1944. The Americas provided inspiration for much of the material, from the seductive rumba of "Leo's Waltz' to the Venezuelan-inspired "Maracaibo." The rhythm section of bassist Eric Vincenot and drummer Jean Rabeso kept immaculate time throughout, while pianist Jonathon Jurion's electrifying playing provided some of the best improvisation of the two days.

Tangora not only displayed great dexterity linguistically, but also stylistically. Whether scatting on her original arrangement of Irish singer Van Morrison's "Moondance," or caressing the lyrics of the pretty "Lolita," Tangora's confident performance was both absorbing and totally convincing.

This year's Borneo Jazz was notable for the energy levels of the performances, and this going-for-broke spirit was epitomized by bassist Schalk Joubert's Three Continents Sextet, the penultimate act of the final day. This line-up was playing for the first time in four years—having come together initially in the bassist's native South Africa—but there were absolutely no signs of rustiness during a hard-driving performance that enthralled the crowd.

The sextet—hailing from Sweden, Norway, South Africa and America—roared out of the blocks with an energetic tribute to keyboardist/composer Joe Zawinul. Alto saxophonist Shannon Mowday from Oslo gave the first of several solos notable for their barreling energy and ecstatic quality. The music tilted between a heady fusion stew powered by Joubert's electric bass with the three-horn front-line, and bubbling South African dance rhythms. The celebratory South African rhythms of "Afrodizzyact" featured fine solos from trombonist Karin Hammar and trumpeter Hildegunn Oiseth, and a rousing intervention by the leader.

Fire was replaced by finesse on the episodic "Ke Lefa," a poignant prayer for rain in times of merciless drought. Hammar's duet with the bassist contrasted boldly with the ensemble roar at the piece's end. The soloing, though uniformly excellent throughout, outweighed the collective voice at times. When the band slowed things down—as on the "African Requiem"—the subtleties of the music were highlighted. "Kayamandi" combined infectious dance rhythms with African vocal harmonies.

For the most part, this was a high-octane performance, and the funk of "El Niño"—with some OTT grandstanding from Schalk—and Paul Simon's "You Can Call me Al"—sung by trumpeter/percussionist Richard Armstrong—was crowd-rousing festival music by design. The terrific energy of the performers translated itself to the crowd who gave the band one of the loudest ovations of the festival.

The final performance of Borneo Jazz 2012 fell to Koh Mr. Saxman and Takeshi Band. Koh Mr. Saxman has built his legend in Thailand over twenty years with his smooth/funky jazz, though he's an outstanding technician who can fire off dazzling bebop lines at will. In spite of the band's name, there was nothing remotely Japanese about the music, and instead, Koh regaled the crowd with typically melodic, and for the most part, easy-listening fare that ran from salsa-inflected numbers to heavy doses of funk.

Singer Benyapa Sukeenu lent her fine voice to a couple of numbers; a stirring rendition of Hoagy Carmichael/Stuart Gorrell's "Georgia on my Mind" featured swirling organ lines from keyboardist Pattaya Yusathit, followed by a Thai-sung ballad where guitarist Punnawit Suwattananum drew sounds from his strings evocative of the three-stringed Thai phin. Koh's epic alto solo crowned a beautiful song.

Ever the showman, Koh left the stage and went walkabout through the crowd, greeting people as he let loose some of his headiest soloing of the evening. Not many are those who can imitate alto saxophonist Charlie Parker while shaking your hand, but they broke the mold when they made Koh. Back on stage, Koh was joined by alto player Shannon Mowday, and the pair went toe-to-toe in an old-style cutting contest of furious intensity. It was just the sort of end the festival—and Koh's set—required to send people home on a high, though not before the traditional Borneo Jazz jam-session brought most of the musicians together on stage for a final, clamorous send-off.

The festival organizers' stated aim is to make Borneo Jazz "an iconic event in the region." Whether this means attracting bigger names to play the festival and raising the bar artistically, or whether it means simply growing the event in terms of numbers, remains to be seen. There's still some tweaking to be done first, and the fringe events/workshops are certainly one area that could be strengthened. Nevertheless, Borneo Jazz is on the right path, and has all the potential to become as famous as its sister-festival in Sarawak, the Rainforest World Music Festival. Here's hoping that the quality of the music remains the driving factor in future editions of Borneo Jazz.

Photo Credits

Pages 1, 5, bottom photos:William Ting

All other photos: courtesy of Sarawak Tourism Board/Pein Lee

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