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Borneo Jazz 2011

Ian Patterson By

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Day two began with a question from two young Miri women: "Where is the jazz?" The two women, who had come to the festival from neighboring Brunei where they work, had been scratching their heads after the first day. "We love jazz, that's why we came here, but there's no jazz," one of the women complained. No doubt the festival organizers would respond with another question: So, what is jazz exactly? The festival promotes Brazilian jazz, electronic nu-jazz, the progenitor of jazz in the form of the blues, fusion music and Latin jazz-rock. And straight ahead jazz? Yes, that too, but only one concert out of 11 over the course of four days, the Japanese band, Yuichiro Tokuda's Ralyzz Dig, could really satisfy the purists.

If Borneo Jazz aspires to become "an iconic jazz festival" in the words of the CEO of Sarawak Tourism, Dato Rashid Khan, then it might want to consider readdressing the balance between the predominant fringes-of-jazz performances, and more straight ahead jazz. As the two women-stated rhetorically: "Shouldn't there be a couple of real jazz bands each day?" It's food for thought for the organizers. A 50-50 ratio seems like a reasonable quota, and all the evidence suggests that people in Asia in general are hungry for top-quality jazz. Certainly, the enthusiasm of the Jarasum International Jazz Festival crowd in Korea for drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts quartet, the Bangkok Jazz Festival crowd's approval of bassist Christian McBride's Inside Straight , and the Indonesian's excitement generated by Charlie Haden's Quartet West at Java Jazz would tend to support the case. John Kelman's article When is a Jazz Festival Not a Jazz festival? takes a deeper look at this sometimes contentious issue.

Credit, however, must be given to Borneo Jazz for inviting Vancouver-based, Miri boy, Victor Yong, and his band Electric Carnival, in its bid to promote homegrown talent. Guitarist Yong left Miri in '77, for Canada. A lover of rock music, it was a record by guitarist Joe Pass and pianist Oscar Peterson which gave him the bug for jazz, and for the past twenty years he has performed in a wide variety of contexts, though often in a Latin context. It was a thrill for Yong when his application to perform at Borneo Jazz '11 with his Latin jazz-rock band was accepted, and his home-coming concert was warmly received by the Miri crowd.

An early period Carlos Santana vibe colored a lot of the music, particularly the opener, "Chill," with Yong's biting, bluesy guitar backed by a driving rhythm section, with the congas and cowbells of Nicolas Apiyor prominently featured. Yong and second guitarist David Phyall both built patient solos either side of the extremely groovy head, and the vibe could almost have been San Francisco circa 1971. There was a more contemporary edge to "Make a Move," which could best be described as Latin disco. "Flamenco Nuevo" was an up-tempo Spanish flavored rocker with a nod towards the salsa dura—minus vocals—that has undergone something of a revival in recent years.

On the slower number "Ever So Sudden," Yong's elegant, slightly funky guitar work evoked guitarist Wes Montgomery. On "Batacuda" the Electric Carnival band formed a line at the front of the stage, and, led by Phil Belanger from the Cunha E Piper, it cut loose with an infectious percussive rhythm. The groove was eventually taken up by drummer Randall Stoll, and bassist Doug Stevenson who steered the band into "Dawn of the Carnival," a highly melodic tune which again featured fine fret work from Yong, and a swirling keyboard solo from Louis Mastroianni. An energetic set concluded with a return to Santana-influenced Latin jazz rock; Belanger worked his congas hard and Mastroianni's organ riffs shimmered, as Stoll took an extended drum solo, followed by the leader's killer six-string solo. Any nerves that Yong may have felt returning to his home town to play were kept well hidden, and Electric Carnival's confident, grooving performance earned a strong ovation.

Earlier in the day, Yong had expressed his feelings about the festival: "It's unbelievable that Miri has a jazz festival; I mean, Miri? This wasn't a sophisticated town when I left thirty years ago." Yong said. And for Yong, the future of jazz in Miri is bright: "There's quite a bit of improvisation in indigenous music, like the music of the Iban [tribe], which means that jazz has a natural foothold." If the musicians of Miri were encouraged by Yong's participation at Borneo Jazz '11 to aim for the main stage themselves one day, then Yong will have played some part in the growth of both the local music scene, and the festival itself.

Japanese quintet Ralyzz Dig, led by saxophonist Yuichiro Tokuda, gave an exciting performance which was steeped in the jazz tradition without being enslaved by it. A lively set of originals covered post-bop terrain—driving and full-blooded—though there was plenty of rhythmic diversity and emotion in Tokuda's compositions, which also borrowed from Japanese folk song. The opening number began with a big vamp, courtesy of pianist Kazuhiro Tamura and guitarist Naoto Suzuki, which stirred the crowd. Kumpei Nakabayashi's bass and Gaku Hasegawa's crashing drums provided an animated backdrop for Tokuda, whose phrasing flowed like endless waves, rising and crashing. Tokuda was seemingly inspired by the occasion; his solos, whether on alto or soprano, were lean and muscular, and he eschewed any gimmickry or showboating.

A slower number featured Suzuki, whose extended solo—measured and highly melodic—bore more than a passing resemblance to Missouri guitarist Pat Metheny. The gently swinging "Brunei" provided another example of emotive content overriding shows of technique, though mention should be made of Tamura's impressive solo which strained against the slow pace of the piece, creating tension which he gradually resolved, with the quintet winding down slowly on an evocative piece. On the impressive, episodic "Nothing There," Tokuda and Suzuki carved out hard-driving unison lines over a fast walking bass. Tokuda broke free, his alto hurtling and tumbling urgently, coaxed by the rhythm section, alert to the saxophonist's leaps of imagination. Drums and piano soloed in turn, before guitar and saxophone rejoined on the head, closing out a terrific tune.

Introducing "Song of the Seashore," Tokuda told the crowd: "The tsunami broke everything, but we still love the ocean—we need the ocean." Tokuda's vocals on a gently waltzing song were weighted with emotion, and the language barrier was irrelevant as he connected with the audience in a strangely moving way; strange, because this poetic ode to the ocean—beautiful yet melancholy—came so soon after the devastation visited upon Japan. Tokuda's soprano solo in the mid section of the song was tender, forgiving. At song's end it was doubtful whether the two women from Miri working in Brunei—or anyone else—cared whether this song classified as jazz or not. However, the cheers that rang out throughout Ralyzz Dig's performance and the tremendous reception the band received at the end, underlined the Borneo Jazz crowd's clear appreciation for no-frills, straight ahead jazz.

The lush grounds of the Park City Everly Hotel abut the sea, and spectacular sunsets seared the sky a myriad of colors each evening. Between performances festival goers could indulge in a variety of tasty local cuisine or enjoy a cold beer or glass of wine. Stalls selling colorful prints, t-shirts and locally crafted jewelry, as well as CDs of the festival artists were doing brisk business, and the tattoo stall was leaving an indelible mark of Borneo on the appendages of many, with its array of striking, traditional ethnic symbols. Systa BB from RRR Melbourne made sure that the good vibes never stopped, spinning tremendously funky tunes from the dance pavilion; heavy African beats, Latin colors, or the intoxicating mix of bassist Jah Wobble and morlam from North-East Thailand/Laos filled the night air, and had a large portion of the crowd dancing hard in front of the stage.

The most urban sounding music of Borneo Jazz '11 was provided by Dutch band State of Monc. It has been going for fifteen years and plots a musical course heavily steered by the influence of trumpeter Miles Davis, to some degree Weather Report, electronica, bands like Orbital, and the dubstep movement. However, as trumpeter Arthur Flink said prior to the concert: "We take something from everything we hear." Hielke Praagam's electronics informed much of the music, creating ambient waves and driving dance beats. Flink played Miles to soprano saxophonist Bernardus Van Den Dungen's Dave Liebman, and the two dovetailed closely throughout the set, with Flink's staccato bursts contrasting with the longer, sinewy lines of the saxophonist. Splashes of keyboard from Praagam added to the Miles Davis feel of the music, building a bridge from late '60s/early '70s electronic Miles to his electric '80s period. However, like Swiss trumpeter Erik Truffaz, Flink is channeling Davis' influence into quite personal terrain.

A funk-heavy underbelly was created by bassist Kasper Kalf, whose grooving ostinatos and minimalist dub lines worked particularly well on the slower sections. Drummer Tuur Moens worked hard throughout the set and brought intensity to the quartet sound, driving the front line of Flink and Den Dungen. Flink's mute changed the dynamics quite nicely, particularly over a trip-hop section, and though his playing was excellent, the lion's share of the soloing was left to Den Dungen whose fluid lines provided the best saxophone playing of the weekend. If Miles had lived another decade, and presuming his lung power didn't diminish further than it had by the time he died in '91—two rather large ifs—he might well have ventured in a similar direction to State of Monc.

However, at almost any jazz festival, whether straight ahead or less orthodox, the presence of Miles is nearly always felt. In a way, State of Monc carries on his legacy, and in its own way, fuses jazz with diverse urban rhythms and sounds to create something totally other.

The closing act of Saturday night took the audience on another tour of the blues, this time by the veteran American roots singer Maria Muldaur. Part of the folk scene in Greenwich Village in the sixties, Muldaur formed a bluegrass band with legendary mandolin player David Grisman, and played in a jug band with singer/songwriter John Sebastian. Notable success followed in the '70s with her radio friendly "Midnight at the Oasis"—a worldwide hit—and during her long career Muldaur has explored jazz, rhythm-and-blues, gospel and blues. Of those early years Muldaur said: "I was following my bliss," and judging by her fired-up performance at Borneo Jazz '11, that much hasn't changed.

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