Jazz Royale Festival
Suanam Suapa, Bangkok
9-10 December 2006
"I'm ashamed of Thailand, Mr. Jitpleecheep confessed to me, crushing an empty beer can rather mournfully. It wasn't corruption and the as-yet-uninvestigated extra-judicial killings of two and a half thousand alleged drug dealers under the old regime of Prime minister Thaksin; nor was it the military coup which recently overthrew the government, or the nation's notorious flesh trade or the disappointing medals haul in the Asian games. The cause of Mr. Jitpleecheep's distress was that Kenny G was headlining The Jazz Royale Festival in honor of King Bhumibol's sixtieth anniversary on the thronethus relegating McCoy Tyner, Ahmad Jamal, Nancy Wilson, Regina Carter and the Dizzy Gillespie All Star Big Band to mere supporting roles. Injustice it seems is everywhere.
The two-day festival, traveling to four cities in Thailand, was launched in Bangkok within the royal grounds of Sanam Suepa and to a full house. Both days in the City of Angels were kick-started by the Oriental Jazz Quartet featuring Cherryl Hayes. Originally from Indiana, Hayes has been Bangkok-based for a few years now and is something of a local star. Her fine backing band warmed up the crowd for a couple of numbers before Hayes took the stageand proceeded to set it on fire. At least it would be fun to think that this was the case, and that the smoke billowing across the stage wasn't instead due to an electrical short. Fortunately, this was one fire that could be extinguished, permitting the group to get on with the show.
Their up-tempo set included a couple of compositions by King Bhumibol, tunes that delighted the crowd. Hayes herself possesses a soulful, blues-drenched voice of great strength and range, and it was heard to great effect on the set closer, the old Chicago blues number "(I'd Rather) Drink Muddy Water. In sum, a rousing opening and a great festival band that the crowd warmly appreciated.
After a very fast turn-aroundalthough not fast enough to prevent the ludicrously inept emcee double-act from diminishing the impact of the opening actthe McCoy Tyner Trio graced the stage. That this trio included Eric Gravatt on drums and Eric Revis on double bass (taking a break from barnstorming the world with Branford Marsalis) made for a mouthwatering proposition.
From the opening "Angelina to the end of his set an hour later, Tyner demonstrated that there is really no one quite like him. His sound is instantly recognizable; the thunderous percussion of his left hand coming down on the keys like a hammer, right and left hand racing each other along the keys at breakneck speed.
Gravatt and Revis were hardly overshadowed, however, as galloping interplay characterized the ensemble's set; even for Duke Ellington's "In a Mellow Tone there was little taking the collective foot off the gas. The dynamic and dramatic innovations of Tyner, the chord clusters, the racing vertical lines, the tremendous crescendos, the legenda well-deserved standing ovation.
It's too early to call Regina Carter a legend, but there seems little doubt that she will be both the inspiration for generations of jazz violinists to come and the yardstick by which they shall be measured. Her band opened with a rousing, swinging version of "Little Brown Jug," clarinetist Anthony Nelson (who impressed throughout the set) taking a particularly fine solo.
Carter wants to be part of great music and not just a virtuoso figurehead; witness the space she allows the other musicians to breathe and express themselves while she sits out or adds pinceladas of color. Her solos were neither too frequent nor too indulgent, and all the more striking as a result. She saved her spotlight for the band's final number, a heartfelt rendition of "I'll Be Seeing You with her most beautiful and lyrical solo the highlight of an altogether wonderful set.
Under the energetic guidance of leader Slide Hampton, the Dizzy Gillespie All Star Big Band gave a polished lesson in the art of large ensemble playing. Tadd Dameron's "Hothouse opened a robust set during which the solos were short and to the point and the band itself was the real star. James Moody and Claudio Roditi stepped into the spotlight on Gillespie's "Con Alma and left their respective signatures.
In a band boasting an embarrassment of riches it was Paquito D'Rivera who got the meatiest solos. On "I Remember Dizzy his distinctive clarinet cut through the big-band sound, and on "Manteca his sax wailed out of and above the ferociously swinging ensemble. The cherry on the cake was singer Roberta Gambarini, whose beautifully assured vocals added color and contrast. On "Moody's Blues," Jimmy Heath's tribute to James Moody, the band took up singing duties and echoed Gambarini's lines to the delight of the crowd. Oh for another hour of this!
After Cherryl Hayes and the Oriental Jazz Quartet opened day two with the same energy and style as they had the previous day, it was time for another jazz legend to raise the bar. Ahmad Jamal, in the shadows, slipped almost unnoticed onto the stage, avoiding the spotlight and to sparse applause, while the emcee was still introducing him. The reception was almost a metaphor for his entire career. At seventy-six years of age Ahmad Jamal is playing as well and with as much energy as ever. Backed by stalwarts Idris Muhammad on drums and James Commack on double bass, the three instruments were set up as close together as possible, as though they were playing on a stage that was hardly big enough to accommodate them.
These three have been playing together now for so long that their interplay and mutual understanding is immense. It was fascinating to watch how closely Jamal observed his sidemen; when Commack soloed Jamal studied him as if for the first time; when Muhammad took over the steering, Jamal would turn half around, leaning back towards the drum kit whilst his right hand riffed or kept the melody flickering.
In an exhilarating set all the Jamal trademarks were therethe light, dancing right hand; the rumbling chords and thunderous crescendos; the slow wind-down to a song and the big, final note rammed home like a flagpole into the ground. And fifty years after he first played it, "Poinciana sounded fresh and vital as Jamal and company injected innovation and exciting improvisation. A mere one hour of one of the greatest jazz trios in the history of the music seemed like far too little.
Chris Botti is a better trumpet player than he is sometimes given credit for, particularly in a live context, although in a concert of just an hour he had little space to move beyond the ballads which his audience expects of him. "Flamenco Sketches and "My Funny Valentine, which came across as warm tributes to Miles Davis, seemed like obvious choices; "Cinema Paradiso by Andrea Morricone and "The First Noel perhaps less so. Leonard Cohen's "A Thousand Kisses Deep altered the mood of the set nicely and featured an arresting performance by Botti.
When Botti wasn't balladeering, his band really funked it up. Billy Childs on keyboards, Mark Whitfield on guitar and ex-Dave Holland drummer Billy Kilson all excelled while energizing the music along with the crowd. Kilson lashed his kit with discommunal enthusiasm and had to be pryed away to take part in the curtain call alongside his fellow band members in front of an appreciative crowd.
One of the highlights of the festival was the wonderful performance given by veteran singer Nancy Wilson. She opened briskly with Van Morrison's "Moondance and continued with a set of beautifully delivered numbers, pregnant with emotion but never overly sentimental. Her voice was strong and her phrasing perfect. "Never Will I Marry, which she recorded forty years ago with Cannonball Adderley, sounded utterly contemporary, and there are plans to re-record it next year with Tom Scott, Terence Blanchard, Marcus Miller and George Duke. The plethora of hopeful young singers these days could learn a lot from Nancy Wilson. She runs rings around all of them.
And so to the headliner. I had persuaded Mr. Jitpleecheep to stay for Kenny G, which he did reluctantly, offering me a beer. What is it they say about the relationship between the jailor and the jailed? Kenny G took an awfully long time to join his band on stage. The reason, it soon became apparent, was because he was walking through the crowd, playing his way into everyone's heart.
Stopping to mount a podium where he played the world's longest sustained note, G next joined his band on stage. For two hours he thrilled his devotees with his spoken Thai, the King's compositions and his own, and not a little showmanship. He displayed some very fast runs, played "What A Wonderful World to a video of Louis Armstrong, and sent the vast majority of the crowd home with beaming smiles and clutching Kenny G CDs.
At the end of two days of mostly wonderful music, Mr. Jitpleecheep was unrepentant in his stinging criticism of the festival organizers. I reminded him that in England for Queen Elizabeth's fiftieth anniversary they had placed a guitarist on top of Buckingham Palace to play "God Save The Queen, based on the rather flimsy premise that he had once played in a band called Queen. There was no McCoy Tyner that day, no Ahmad Jamal, no Nancy Wilson, no Regina Carter, no James Moody no Slide Hampton no Roy Hargrove, no Roberta Gambarini and no Paquito D'Rivera.
Thank the stars that King Bhumibol of Thailand is a jazz fan. Thank the stars.