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.



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