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Borneo Jazz 2011

Ian Patterson By

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Brazilian music has featured in most of the previous editions of Borneo Jazz, and regulars to the festival recalled with enthusiasm last year's performance of violinist Ricardo Hertz and his quartet, whose vibrant folk delved into a rich folkloric tradition stretching back over a century. This year, the more familiar Brazilian forms of bossa and samba graced the festival with the laidback performance of Cunha E Piper. Vocalist Fernanda Cunha and guitarist Ray Piper co-led a seasoned sextet through a polite set of mostly well-known Brazilian standards, one which drew heavily from Antonio Carlos Jobim.

Piper has a long history with Brazil, and his recording Sabor de Rio (SOCAN, 2009) featured some of Brazil's top musicians such as bassist Jorge Helder, bandolim player Ronaldo do Bandolim and guitarist Rogerio Souza.. Clearly, Piper is steeped in the tradition, of choro and samba, although this performance had the feel of a play-it-safe set, peppered with old chestnuts like "The Girl from Ipanema," a sultry "Corcovado," "Triste" and "So Danco Samba." Piper, pianist Michael Creber and particularly saxophonist/flautist Thomas Keenlyside, all soloed with aplomb, but the lack of any Brazilian percussion left a hole in the rhythmic component of the music.

With the exception of Cunha's swinging "Candy," the set was a bit one-paced until the final couple of numbers. The beautiful samba "Adeus America" from 1948, with its tale of longing for the home country, took the band out on a high, with Keenlyside injecting some fire in into his saxophone solo. Greater variation in tempo throughout the set would have been welcome, though a more intimate venue would probably have made quite a difference.

As it was, Piper's Braziliada quartet, featuring the same musicians, closed the festival on Sunday afternoon, with a matinee performance of altogether more intimacy and vibrancy. The Ricardo Hertz show the previous year underlined that the Miri crowd—which brought people from neighboring Sabah, Kuala Lumpar, Penang, and form much further afield—is appreciative of less familiar Brazilian music forms. A set of some of Jobim's many other compositions, seldom heard outside Brazil ,might have made for a more engaging performance, and these musicians—passionate one and all about Brazil's music—would have no problem pulling it off.

Another welcome friend of Borneo Jazz is the blues, and the festival has hosted some great blues artists over the years, with an undoubted highlight being the outstanding show of veteran harp player James Cotton the previous year. It is fair to say that singer/guitarist John Hammond is a legend himself, coming into his own in the wake of the blues revival of the '60s which revived dormant figures such as Son House, Skip James, Reverend Gary Davis and Mississippi John Hurt. Just the week prior to Borneo Jazz '11, Hammond was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame and his intense set in the balmy early evening left nobody in any doubt as to why.

Hammond's baptism in the blues came at the age of seven, when his father took him to hear singer/songwriter/guitarist Big Bill Broonzy. "It had a profound effect on me," Hammond told the assembled media at the morning press conference. Although he wouldn't get a guitar until he was 18, Hammond was performing just a year later. Exactly fifty years later, Hammond is as passionate about the blues as ever. "Something comes through me when I play. It inspires me to stay on the road 300 days a year," the 68-year-old said. Playing more than ever these days, Hammond has played more than six thousand gigs in his long career to date.

Hammond's career has been well-documented, and he has performed with a who's who of the blues: "I played with [singers/guitarists] Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, and Mississippi John Hurt. I've been so fortunate to play with these guys and glean something from them," Hammond says. "I never could have imagined I would be part of that, and then I became it." That Hammond is still playing all over the world to enthusiastic audiences is something he never takes for granted, but neither is he surprised that he always finds an audience: "Every generation discovers the blues," he affirmed.

For an hour Hammond provided a passionate demonstration of just why the blues appeals to generation after generation, in every corner of the world. His repertoire drew from the very roots of the blues, from Robert Johnson's "It's Gonna Be Rainin' Outdoors" to Sleepy John Estes's "Someday Baby Blues." Switching from his 1935 National Guitar—which looked like it had given loyal service—to acoustic guitar, Hammond's hands were a blur of string-threatening strum and his trademark slide, zipping up and down the frets. Hammond's harmonica, strapped around his neck, was—like his guitar—an extension of himself. Crying slide and wailing harmonica on the raw blues of "You Know That's Cold," suggested his influence on Irish blues guitarist Rory Gallagher, whose legendary acoustic sets mirrored the technique, passion and intensity of Hammond.

Blues vocals are somewhat unique, as the delivery is more important than having a "good" voice per se. As good a guitarist as Hammond is, it's his singing which really holds the attention; as powerful as a Southern Baptist preacher and as soulful as gospel music, Hammond is the real deal. At all times he seemed to be locked in a profound reverie where he was both preacher and confessor. When he sang "Lord, I'm goin' up country where I'm barely known," the world-weariness, pain, and need for renewal in Hammond's delivery were moving. There was poignancy in Hammond's voice, carrying the words of Blind Willie McTell: "Would you walk with a woman who always had to have her way?" McTell was unusual amongst blues artists as he played finger picking style on a twelve-string guitar. Although he died in 1959 aged 61, his music influenced blues artists, folk singers and rock bands, including Bob Dylan, Allman Brothers Band, Taj Mahal and Jack White.

More up-tempo numbers such as Muddy Waters 1948 hit "I can't be Satisfied," Robert Geddins' "My Time after a While," Jimmy Rogers' "That's Alright" and Johnson's "Preaching Blues (Up Jumped the Devil)" brought the concert to a stirring conclusion. The legendary, near-mythical Robert Johnson was an important influence on Hammond who paid tribute to Johnson on At the Crossroads: The Blues of Robert Johnson (Vanguard Records, 2003).

The inevitable encore—Hammond had retaken his chair even as the irrepressible MC Gezza was urging the crowd on to call him back—was Jimmy Reed's 1960 hit "Found Love" with the lyric, "It's hard to believe the condition the world is in, you can't trust nobody and baby that's a sin," which again underlined the timelessness of the blues; what would Reed make of the condition of the world in '11? Apart from influencing Hammond, Reed has also influenced everyone from the Grateful Dead and the The Rolling Stones to Elvis Presley and Neil Young.

Hammond took his bows and left the stage, and left too, an indelible print on the memory of all those who witnessed his performance.

The closing act on Friday night was French gypsy jazz outfit, Les Doights de L'Homme, a four-piece inspired by the music of Belgian gypsy Django Reinhardt, whose centenary in '10 saw a resurgence of interest in his music, almost 60 years after his death. Reinhardt's influence on musicians though, has never waned; like Jobim, many of the mercurial guitarist's compositions have provided jazz with standards—and inspiration—which keep Reinhardt's flame very much alive. The slightly unusual configuration of three guitarists and a bassist made for a powerful sonic offering. Olivier Kikteff and Benoit Covert shared lead duties while Yannick Alcocer provided buoyant rhythm, often accompanied by Covert. Bassist Blum Tanguy had to work hard to be heard in the midst of the exuberant, foot-to-the-floor virtuosity going on around him and the powerful, twin guitar rhythm machine.

Les Doights de L'Homme dedicated its performance to the gypsies of Europe, and the band also played a song which remembered the persecution of the gypsies at the hands of the Nazis. There was no political statement, and if there was a message it was simply a reminder of the rights of all people. As governments in Europe look to regulate the gypsy communities and end their nomadic existence, so too in Borneo, a similar process of resettlement has all but ended the nomadic way of life of the jungle tribes. Though no firm statistics exist, it is believed that no more than a few hundred people of the Penan tribe continue a nomadic existence in the dense jungles.

As with all resettled peoples, a process of acculturation has taken place in Borneo in the course of a couple of generations; knowledge and use of the medicinal properties of jungle plants has dwindled, vocabulary of millennium is gradually replaced, and convenience has largely trumped versatility and creativity. The Evangelical church has rewired and rechristened those convinced by the sign above the church door proclaiming the message: "No one goes to the father except by me." The sounds of Malaysian TV soaps coming from the traditional long houses vie with the song of the cicadas, the barking monkeys and croaking frogs. The tribes supplement their income selling knick-knacks to camera-toting tourists. In return for renouncing the nomadic way of life, the Penan have access to mainstream education and health clinics, as well as access to diverse job opportunities.

On more than one occasion Kikteff said how fortunate he felt to live in a mufti-cultural country such as France. This melting pot has influenced the bands' music, and in the past it has employed cajon and banjo in a broad approach to making music. The only other instrument employed in this performance other than guitars and bass was the oud; Kikteff gave a wonderful solo oud recital on the intro to "Identite National," which was brooding and poetic. When the other three musicians joined Kikteff the tempo was raised a notch, and fast intricate lines flavored by flamenco dominated this potent song. Besides the lightening runs and the chopped chords executed with vigor and unerring precision, there were also nice changes in tempo, like the beginning to the old English staple "St. James Infirmary," which saw the quartet engaged in a delightful slow blues. However, the body of the song, and indeed the set, was the unique brand of devil-may-care jazz purveyed by Django Reinhardt.

Les Doights de L'Homme—carriers of Django's torch and quiet champions of the marginalized---went down a storm with the Borneo crowd and provided a definite highlight of the festival.

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