Since trips to Nepal usually involve mountain climbs, perhaps reaching the potential summit of a jazz festival here at the halfway point is appropriate.
A jam session between traditional Nepali musicians and visiting bands on day five of Jazzmandu 2005 got nods from players and listeners as the best performance of the eight-day festival to date. An audience scattered among dining tables, fire buckets and traditional seating in the outdoor courtyard of the Patan Durbar museum heard everything from minimal acoustic to all-out electric R&B, and centuries-old tunes to just finished compositions, often by players stepping outside familiar roles.
"It's been a great energy and a great sharing of ideas, all the musicians we get together," said Navin Chhettri, one of the festival's founders and the drummer/vocalist for the Kathmandu fusion group Cadenza, early in the evening. "We have almost all the bands tonight with us and we'll be sharing our different sounds and energies with the classical musicians from Nepal, and I have to say these musicians here on stage are the greatest I've met."
(A bonus: the session was recorded and it appears organizers will allow us to post a song or two from the evening here in MP3 format. Appropriate links will be added if it comes to pass.)
The performance began, as did a mixed group Latin session on day three, with vocalist Carmen Genest and guitarist David Jacques of Canada. Their three folk/jazz pieces were similar to the standards and French originals of their earlier showand thus a bit disappointingalthough Genest's strong and well-controlled mid-range vocals rise above the perfunctory. But Jacques isn't getting a chance to play to the level his credentials suggest, essentially offering rhythm support and little solo when he has a lengthy stylistic and performance resume. Hopefully some of it will be heard before the end of the festival.
A more dominating subsequent set came from the blues band Soulmate of the northwest Indian town of Shillong, beginning with Tipriti Kharbyngar's gutsy vocals. Covering the range from low soul to rebel-yell highs, her only real hitch was getting a bit too loud at times due to insufficient compression from the sound board. But she demonstrated a good ability to back off when the mostly up-tempo R&B performance took a breather for the minor-keyish original "The Prize." Her guitar work wasn't notable, but a good mix of slides and off-pitch runs came from fellow player Rudy (who seemingly goes by no last name). Good stuff, but I was wondering how much "fusion" between performers was going to occur.
Cue next appearance.
A trio of Nepali players on traditional string and percussion instruments joined Cadenza, opening with Dave Brubeck's "Blue Roundup." Rabin Lal Shrestha (tablas), Suresh Raj Bajracharya (sarod) and Santosh Bhakta (Ishraj) traded instrumental interludes with flutist Bastian Flury, keyboardist Binod Katwal and Chettri during an ethnic-laced instrumental introduction before settling into the song's more traditional swing beat. It made for an interesting sound texture, although outside of Flury's mix of trills and spaced phrasing there wasn't much distinctive soloing.
The follow-up to close the set (I did not catch the name) proved more interesting thanks largely to the addition of Gurudev Kamad, an Indian classical vocalist now living in Kathmandu. His low and even voice anchored a mellow, contemporary beat raga more than 10 minutes long. Bajracharya bowed quickly through a complex series of lines that remained clear and melodic, while Flury set a reflective mood with some long-tone sax soloing. I give him more credit than I might usually for sticking with it, as some major electrical jolts and other sound problems popped up several times, which were unfortunately bad enough to keep listeners on edge in the wrong way.
The second set again began low-key, but on a promising note as Shrestha played an unaccompanied tabla piece before Håkon Mjåset Johansen of the Norwegian trio Solid and Chettri joined for a full-kit fusion/rock romp with the latter scatting some vocals on top for spice. A few more players eventually joined as it morphed into what my notes call "a modern 'Footprints' cadence with a Bela Fleck bass vamp" as Flury again contributed notably, this time with a high and growling Kenny Garrett-style funk.
Also notable was the guest vocalist appearance by Arpana Rayamajhi on her 18th birthday, capturing the best elements of a talented young performer by displaying a considerable range and passion. For the unnamed woman serving as emcee (working on it - she did far too well to stay cloaked in anonymity), Rayamajhi represented a hopeful sign jazz in Nepal may be gaining in popularity among younger people.
"Before I've heard her doing only Alison?? Morissette?, but not she's doing blues and jazz," the emcee said, earning the teenager a round of applause.
The closing piece was another winner as most of the players collaborated on a recognizable but definitely "worldly" arrangement of "Take Five." A tabla and bowed-note prelude from Shrestha and Bajracharya was a bit modern in characterwith the latter sounding more like Jean-Luc Ponty than Stephane Grappellibut Bhakta's pluckings could have fit nicely into the Django Reinhardt era. More than any other song, this satiated my curiosity about how such players might sound tackling classics - with results promising enough I'd welcome a concept album from such performers spanning the various genres and eras of jazz.
The only overall down note is common to many of Jazzmandu's events, which is they are taking place in relatively fancy venues with ticket prices well beyond what average residents can afford. I've noted festival organizers say this is largely unavoidable since 1) many locations donate space in exchange for things like concession sales and 2) there is very limited financial support to pay the festival's and artists' costs. There's also the overall lack of interest and awareness of jazz in Nepal: One of my habits at many performances is to sneak out just before the end to see if anyone is sneaking in "free" listens, something I've seen at many festivals where people gather on lawns or hillsides outside venues where the music can be heard, if not seen. But while the concert could be heard in Patan Durbar Square, a major tourist attraction where several hundred locals gathered the previous afternoon for a free Jazzmandu concert, the pathways were nearly deserted and nobody seemed to be listening in.
Still, it wasn't much of a damper, given the quality of the performance, and the lineup for day six offers a more thorough chance to assess the present and future potential for increasing the presence of jazz here. A number of performers are scheduled to appear at one of Kathmandu's more prestigious schools, and the evening is another jam sessionthis time at a club that's supposedly the city's best jazz hangout. Since I can't say I've got a regular bar to hit around here, it's hard to imagine passing the night anywhere else.
Coming on day six: Getting educated, locked out and lucky in the streets.