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Kuala Lumpur International Jazz Festival: 19-20 May, 2012

Kuala Lumpur International Jazz Festival: 19-20 May, 2012

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KL International Jazz Festival
Kuala Lumpur Convention Center
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
May 19-20, 2012

The 19th and 20th of May, 2012 will long be remembered by jazz lovers in Kuala Lumpur as the day jazz came to town. The 13 acts that performed on the stage of the KL Convention Center made history by inaugurating the KL International Jazz Festival. For those attending, feelings were of pride and a certain sense of relief that, finally, this great Asian metropolis was hosting an international jazz festival. After all, if Penang, Miri and Kota Kinabalu can all stage jazz festivals, then why not the Malaysian capital?

Managing Director Rodin JS Kumar and Executive Chairman Maizon Omar deserve great praise for showing the ambition and the tenacity necessary to pull this event off. Setting the bar high from the start, they pulled out all the stops in bringing the likes of pianists Ahmad Jamal and Hiromi to KL, not to mention tenor great Ernie Watts. Suitably enough in this cosmopolitan city, the festival balanced the best of Western and Asian jazz artists, and acknowledged the importance—both historically and in contemporary terms—of Malaysian jazz musicians from the get go.

Though the large hall was less than packed throughout, the organizers should take heart in the knowledge that mighty oaks from little acorns grow. Most festivals have humble beginnings. The Montreux Jazz Festival has grown from a few thousand spectators in 1967 to over 200,000 today. The Jarasum International Jazz Festival in South Korea almost folded after three editions, with director J.J. In forced to sell his house to meet the festival's debts; in 2011, Jarasum attracted over 170,000 spectators. And the world-famous Glastonbury Festival sold only 1,500 tickets for the first edition in 1970, compared to the 135,000 sold last year.

A shared characteristic amongst organizers of nearly all established festivals is an unerring belief in the music, and the determination to weather any storm. The organizers of KLIJF were already talking about the second edition, and spoke of their vision to establish KLIJF as an annual event of which the city can be proud.

The festival, it has to be said, got off to a somewhat low-key start. The 20-piece Dewan Bandaraya Big Band played a set of melodic numbers that sounded, in the main, like '60s TV series scores. There was undoubtedly some power in the full-ensemble sound, some fine individual playing, and on a couple of numbers the band swung, but it wasn't jazz.

The Dewan Bandaraya (Town Hall) was a major supporter of the inaugural KLIJF, and so there was certainly an argument for its inclusion on the festival program, but perhaps not as the opening act. Any of the other bands would have been better suited to give the jazz festival the flying start which surely everybody desired, and it felt like an opportunity missed.

So, it was the Patrick Terbrack Quintet which really got the ball rolling on day one of the KLIJF, with a passionate performance of original, straight-ahead jazz compositions. Alto saxophonist Terbrack is a mainstay of the KL jazz scene, leading his own quartet and regularly performing with pianist Michael Veerapen and percussionist Steve Thornton. He's also played with drummer Jimmy Cobb, saxophonist Benny Golson and in the Gerald Wilson Big Band in a varied career.

"Standstill," from the leader's debut recording, Invitation (Interscope Digital, 2010), set the tone for what was to follow with its strong melodic contours, inherent swing and fine solos which never overstayed their welcome. Trombonist Marques Young and Terbrack carved beautiful harmonic waves on "Arthresian," with Jonathon Ho's walking bass steering the course. The young Singaporean bassist impressed throughout and is a name for which to watch out Pianist Gabriel Evans and drummer Daryl Irving also took lively solos. Terbrack's lyricism was to the fore on the slower "Phase 2," where he combined beautifully once more with Young.

The spirit of saxophonist John Coltrane's classic quartet infused "Malay's Revenge." Starting from a rhapsodic piano intro, the composition segued into a balladic, solo alto sax segment before a shower of bold piano chords rained down along with bristling drums. Saxophonist and trombonist locked horns in powerful unison lines with the rhythm section driving them on. Though an exciting soloist, Terbrack is a fine composer to boot, as the wonderful, slow finale to this number demonstrated. The alto player's gentle coda was supported deftly by Irving on mallets. The short and funky "On the Spot" took the quintet out in upbeat style and rounded off a classy performance.

The inaugural KLIJF would have been unthinkable without Malaysian piano veteran Michael Veerapen. For over three decades, Veerapen has been the leading figure in Malaysian jazz, and along with drummer Lewis Pragasam, was instrumental in organizing the very first jazz-rock concert here in 1978. With Patrick Terbrack taking the stage once again, having barely had time to wipe the sweat from his brow, Veerapen led his quartet through a technically impressive set of elegant, old-school charm.

Pianist Chick Corea's "The Mad Hatter Rhapsody" opened the set, with Veerapen and Terbrack jointly stating the melody. Drummer Steve Nanda and electric bassist Daniel Foong kept light but propulsive time, providing the most solid of bases from which Terbrack on soprano, and then Veerapen, stretched out. Pianist Herbie Hancock's "One Finger Snap" followed, with Terbrack switching to tenor. Nanda and Foong had space to explore and both impressed with their poise and unflashy approach to soloing. Veerapen, though influenced by Corea and Hancock—two of jazz's tireless explorers---is stylistically closer to the generation of pianists that preceded them, and his light, breezy touch on the Brazilian-tinged "New Joy" was more evocative of Oscar Peterson's lyricism.

Junji Delfino—one of KL's best-known jazz singers—brought some vocal sophistication to the remainder of the set. Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer's "That Old Black Magic" featured Delfino's trademark scatting. The singer imbued real power in the swinging finale of singer Billie Holiday/Arthur Herzog's "God Bless the Child," with Terbrack's barreling alto solo and Veerapen's energetic turn adding further spice. Veerapen's jazzy arrangement of Karen Carpenter's "I'll Say Goodbye to Love" provided an oasis of pause in an otherwise up-tempo set, with Nanda's brushes setting the mood. Terbrack's nicely weighted alto solo captured the lyrical essence of the original.

Judie Garland's "Come on Get Happy" began as a slow, gospel blues, before Delfino dug deep and led the quintet through a stirring, ensemble passage, with the endlessly inventive Terbrack once again impressing on alto. The finale, with Veerapen and Delfino in hushed dialogue returned the song to the intimacy of its beginning. Veerapen kept his improvisational best till last, pulling out all the stops on trombonist/composer Juan Tizol's timeless "Caravan." Individually, the members signed off with strong closing statements, and whilst the virtuosity on display was hugely satisfying, this was a concert that extolled the virtues of the collective most convincingly.

The DNA of jazz and blues are so inextricably linked that there's hardly a jazz festival in the world that hasn't some element of blues in its program. KLIJF was no exception. Perth-based Malaysian singer/guitarist Trevor Jalla underlined the fact that you don't have to be born in Mississippi or Chicago to play the blues convincingly. Jalla has a deep appreciation of the historical breadth of the music, and his band paid homage to blues giants like Willie Dixon ("I Just Wanna Make Love to You"}, New Orleans singer/guitarist Walter Wolfman Washington ("I'll Be Good"), and, his major influence, B.B. King ("Ain't Nobody Home"/"You Upset me Baby").

B.B. King informs not only Jalla's ringing guitar style, but also his stage patter. Jalla, however, has more than one string to his bow, and his set was colored by a crossover pop/blues sensibility epitomized by his version of singer/guitarist James Taylor's "Limousine Driver" and "Everybody Has the Blues." Hans Fiance' piano ostinato set up Jalla for a biting solo, which he sang along to wordlessly in singer/guitarist George Benson vein. "I Don't Need No Doctor"—the Nick Ashford/Valerie Simpson/Joe Armstead composition—has worked for everyone from pianist/singer Ray Charles and Humble Pie to guitarist John Scofield. Jalla's deep-funk groove had a bouncing intensity, courtesy of drummer Joe Whittle and bassist Roy Martinez, and the guitarist and Fiance on electric piano traded licks. Singer/guitarist Keb' Mo's "Dangerous" rounded off a crowd-pleasing performance and raised the festival temperature a notch.

The violin seems to have been underemployed in jazz over the years, but in the right hands there is no more captivating an instrument. New York-based Japanese violinist Meg Okura and her Pan Asian Jazz Ensemble beguiled the KLIJF audience with stunning arrangements of multifaceted musician/composer Ryuichi Sakamoto 's music, as well as a few equally absorbing original pieces.

Okura has a few strings to her own bow, having moved from classical violin to jazz following her move to New York. Her versatility has seen her collaborate with singers as diverse as David Bowie, Ziggy Marley and Terrence Howard, and saxophonists Michael Brecker and Lee Konitz. Okura has also performed in the internationally renowned Cirque du Soleil band. Add a number of film soundtracks to the resume and her role in guitarist Basya Schechter's exotic and wildly inventive group Pharaoh's Daughter, and it's clear that this is a musician with an open mind towards music.

Okura's PACJE sounded equally compelling exploring Sakomoto's compositions from the influential electronic group Yellow Magic Orchestra as it did arrangements of his most famous film scores. Sakomoto's urgent "Riot in Lagos" was the perfect set-opener; its driving grooves and strong melody providing drama in abundance. Okura and pianist Helen Sung put down early markers as to the improvisational strengths of this band. Plucked violin strings created the sound of the West African kora on the intro to "Afrasia," from Okura and the PACJE's outstanding Naima (Self Produced, 2010). This seamless musical blending of continents featured Derzon Douglas, switching between plucked bass and arco, and a fine flute solo from Anne Drummond.

The interplay between Drummond and Okura was central to the group's sound, and combined warmth and almost ethereal lyricism with flowing, improvised lines of some intensity. Okura's solo intro to "Tango" was a classically-inspired flight of breathless virtuosity, soon giving way, however, to a lilting collective melodicism that conjured dimly lit dance halls of Buenos Aires barrios. Drummer E.J. Strickland's fat beat provided the backbone to the funky "F.T.M.F." Sung's animated piano solo set the improvisational bar high, but Okura raised it and then some with a wildly entertaining solo that was jazz and folk-influenced in equal measure.

Okura left the stage for five minutes to highlight her excellent band, and it navigated the Yellow Magic Orchestra's "Ishin denshin," creating a jazz waltz of a rather blue hue. Strickland on brushes set the mood as Sung and Drummond took turns to shine. Okura returned to the stage, linking once more with Drummond in a surge of warmth. Italian violinist/composer Niccolò Pagannini's "24th Caprice" morphed into a fiery Cuban son, the highlight of which was Sung's imaginative, unaccompanied solo.

Okura's PACJE closed the show with the music of Sakomoto. The initial statement of the haunting theme to Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983) was met with applause, but this swinging version took everybody by surprise. The ending of great delicacy contrasted with the up-tempo "A Thousand Knives" that followed—the most distinctly Japanese-sounding Okura arrangement of Sakamoto's compositions.

In paying homage to Sakomoto, Okura and the PACJE revealed the common threads that unite all music. From Asia to Africa and the Americas, and from classical to jazz—via the inspiration of electronic music—Okura sees beauty everywhere and translates it into her own exquisite idiom.

There are few better tenor saxophonists around—or exponents of bop-inspired, straight-ahead jazz—than Ernie Watts. As his most recent Oasis (Flying Dolphin Records, 2011) demonstrates, Watts is in top form these days, and this electrifying performance with his seasoned quartet provided another festival highlight.

Watt's musical partner of 20 years, pianist Jeremy Monteiro, took a vibrant extended solo on the swinging opener "To the Point," before handing over to Watts. Drummer Shawn Kelley has been playing with Watts and Monteiro for a decade, and his understanding with the tenor player was displayed in stunning fashion when the two went toe-to-toe in an exchange that brought excited roars and whistles from the crowd, who perhaps had expected that level of intensity at concert's end. At the height of the exchange it seemed as if Watts and Kelley were searching each other's souls.

Kelley switched to brushes on "Konbanwa," with Watts stating the beautiful melody of drummer Heinrich Kobberling's composition over a simple piano motif. Watts stretched out followed by veteran bassist Christy Smith, while all the while Monteiro maintained the piano motif. Monteiro was clearly chomping at the bit when his turn came, as he unleashed a tumultuous flurry of rising and falling lines. Like Watts, Monteiro is essentially a highly melodic player, even in the heat of improvisation, and he has rarely sounded better than on this gig.

Trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie/altoist Charlie Parker's "Shaw Nuff" has been a staple of Watts concerts for years, and it was easy to see why the tenor player never tires of this classic bebop workout. Watching a quartet this good going flat out and throwing all caution to the wind was tremendously exciting. Watts and Monteiro's highly charged exchange towards the song's end stirred the crowd once more.

Watts' "Oasis" matched lyricism with searing intensity. Monteiro's stunning solo—traversing the entire length of the keys in bold and sweeping runs—brought a thumbs-up from Watts. Smith—who has played with the likes of singer Sarah Vaughan and trumpeter Don Cherry—impressed with a soulful intervention, accompanied by the ever intuitive Kelley. Another Watts' staple, "Reaching Up," brought important closing statements from all, and a merited standing ovation from the crowd.

The honor of closing the first day of KLIJF 2012 fell to UK jazz-funk stalwarts Incognito , who gave a highly energetic performance featuring songs from its 15th studio album, Surreal (Shanachie, 2012) as well as material stretching back the length and breadth of its storied 33-year career. Founder/guitarist/producer Jean-Paul "Bluey" Maunick let the crowd know from the first notes of the James Brown-inspired "Love, Joy, Understanding" that Incognito's music is all about communication. Bluey's funky guitar riff and trumpeter Sid Gauld's hot trumpet fired up the band, which worked overtime to lively up the audience. Eventually, through sheer energy, they persuaded the crowd to leave its seats and boogie on down in front of the stage.

Incredibly, over 1,500 musicians from all over the world have taken the stage with Incognito over the years—many for just one performance—and the League of Nations makeup of the band (members hail from Mauritius, Scotland, England, Italy, Indonesia, Swaziland, Germany and Portugal) found its way in to the grooves and melodies of the music.

Singers Dira Sugandi, Natalie Williams, Mo Brandis and Tony Momrelle exuded Motown soulfulness and combined powerfully on "Talkin' Loud" and the deep-soul "N.O.T." Individually, the singers were given plenty of space to shine. Momrelle's interpretation of Stevie Wonder's "As" sounded unerringly like the soul-pop giant; Sugandi was a bundle of soulful energy on "something About the Girl," and Williams brought a little chill out on the slower, "Can't Get You out of My Head"; Brandis—back in the Incognito family after two years touring with singer Sade—impressed on "Labor of Love," a real throwback to soul's '70s heyday.

The subtle funk of new number "Above the Night" contrasted with the heavier grooves and percussion-driven "Expresso Madureira." The latter number was a tribute to Brazilian '70s funk/jazz/soul/salsa band, Banda Black Rio and featured a cracking exchange between drummer Francesco Mendolio and percussionist João Patano. "Always There" brought the crowd to its feet, and everybody partied on through Stevie Wonder's "Don't You Worry 'bout a Thing"—with the brass section executing nifty dance steps in unison— and the encore, "I'll Hear Your Name." Incognito's soulful, funky performance was a musical celebration. Its energy and enthusiasm was simply infectious, and crowned a great first day at KLIJF. Little wonder this band, led by the indomitable Bluey, is still going strong in its fourth decade of existence.

Though it has taken a while for Kuala Lumpur to establish a jazz festival, it has probably the most vibrant jazz scene of any city in Malaysia, with several clubs promoting top local and international live jazz. Thinking ahead, the stated aim of the KLIJF is to promote local jazz through integrated programs throughout the year. The logic is simple; local jazz benefits and so does the KLIJF, as any event programmed throughout the year will of course help promote the festival. The healthy number of Malaysian jazz musicians on the program, as well as ex-patriot jazz musicians based in KL, was proof that the KLIJF has started as it intends to continue.

Day two of the KIJF 2012 got underway promptly at four o'clock with the RTM Jazz Orchestra—the oldest orchestra in Malaysia, which was formed by Ahmad Merican. Celebrating its 50th year, the RTM was led for many years by the late Alphonso Soliano, a jazz pianist who brought jazz to Malaysia in the 1950s. The orchestra benefited from the tutelage of multi-reed player Charlie Mariano and trumpeter Herb Pomeroy in the 1960s. It was clear from the get-go that this 15-piece band has genuine jazz pedigree, as the opening numbers, "Tribute" and "Dawn in KL" saw the ensemble swing with the ease of a Count Basie band. Solos from the horn section, guitar and drums were all short and to the point—the orchestra's voice was the thing.

Singer Irene Soliano—daughter of orchestra founder Alphonso Soliano—joined the stage, and gave an assured rendition of a rhythmically dynamic "Black Orpheus." This was followed by a lovely number sung in Malay, with Soliano initially accompanied by musical director Dato Mokhzani Ismail on piano, in intimate dialogue. The pair was soon lifted by the full weight of the orchestra. Saxophonist Sonny Rollins' "Doxy" was a showpiece for the integrated voices of the orchestra, and Soliano returned to sing several more numbers, including vintage standards "How High the Moon" and "But Not for Me." The RTM Jazz Orchestra's swinging start to the day was exactly what the program needed. Perhaps this historic Malaysian orchestra would have been the more logical choice to have opened the KLIJF the day before.

The best of KL's jazz scene was represented by the second act, the KL Jazz project, whose set was characterized by straight-ahead tunes with strong heads and tasteful interplay. The busy Patrick Terbrack was again on duty—this time as leader—as was trombonist Marques Young. Terbrack's swinging composition "Confucian" opened the set, followed by one from Young, driven by Fly's churning bass ostinato and drummer John L. Thomas's strong rhythms. Guitarist Jordan Rivers took a gently bluesy solo reminiscent of Grant Green. The lyrical "P-Bop" had a very Wayne Shorter-esque arrangement and a graceful melody. Beneath the solos, percussion veteran Steve Thornton's subtle play colored everything.

Pianist John Dip Silas' "Bar One" germinated from a lovely piano intro, with horns gliding in to buoy the melody. Dip Silas gave one of the festival's best constructed piano solos, as drums and percussion built empathetically around him. Thomas' bustling stick work brought the number to a heady climax. Thomas was a real force in the music; dynamic and intuitive and never flashy. Usually referred to as one of Malaysia's great drummers, Thomas is simply a great drummer period. Shorter's "Black Nile" was a feature for Thornton, with the supporting cast framing a great performance by a musician whose rhythms have underpinned everyone from trumpeter Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock to singer/pianist Tania Maria. It was the final act in an engaging set which was a fine advertisement for jazz in KL.

Guitarist Jeremy Tordjman brought a contemporary edge to the KLIJF with his personal brand of grooving jazz-funk. His thrilling guitar work was at the center of original compositions, but drummer Roger Biwandu, pianist/organist Alfio Origlio and bassist Barry Likumawa all excelled,too. The opening number was a delightful slice of powerhouse virtuosity. Tordjman's extended solo formed a dizzying bridge between Jimi Hendrix' bluesy psychedelia and John Scofield's jam-centric, jazz-funk. "Smoke That Grew" followed a similar pattern. Tordjman's secret weapon was Likumawa, who made more than a few jaws drop with his scintillating chops and deep grooves.

"Nostalgia of the Future" showed Tordjman's more lyrical side, with Likumawa's distorted bass bringing an edge to the tone of this quite lovely ballad. Likumawa's singing solo revealed a little more of the bassist's all-'round strengths. Tordjman employed a vocorder effect on guitar on a couple of numbers, but such effects were minimally employed. The guitarist went metal-wild on "Mr. Cool," shredding with joyful abandon while Biwandu and Likumawa charted a heavy groove. Origlio cut blues flavored lines on electric organ over Tordjman's riffing, steering the quartet back to the head and out.

Amazingly, the sound check earlier in the day had been the first time this quartet had played together Not one for the purists perhaps, but highly rewarding for those with an open mind towards creative music. The Jeremy Tordjman Group's electrifying performance was one to remember.

An open mind is a bonus when taking in 13 groups of varying styles. A festival, after all, is surely designed to showcase a broad spectrum of music. If a punter likes 80% of the bands on show then the organizers have succeeded. Most of the audience was won over by saxophonist and Blue Note recording artist Everette Harp. His soul-jazz was funk-charged and highly melodic. Playing without his usual band for only the second time in 20 years, Harp's pickup band reminded the audience of the outstanding talent coming out of Indonesia. Likumawa made his second appearance of the festival on bass, while pianist Indra Lesmana, drummer Sandi Winarta and guitarist Denny TR all gave consummate performances. Percussionist Thornton and keyboardist Hans Zermuethlen rounded out a decidedly solid unit.

Singer Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On?" showed Harp's ability to blend soul with hot playing, and "Going Through Changes" revealed a melodic sensibility not unlike guitarist Pat Metheny. Rhythmically, Harp was clearly influenced by gospel and R&B, and at times, his music veered towards the smooth side of the jazz spectrum. Yet, when he really blew his horn, the bop idiom was plain to hear. This was highlighted on a delightful rendition of saxophonist John Coltrane's sublime "Central Park West," which moved from the original balladic territory to a double-time romp.

Singer/pianist Stevie Wonder's "Where Were You When I Needed You?" featured a lyrical synthesizer solo from Zermuethlen and an animated response from Harp on soprano. On the up-tempo, big-beat set-closer "Monday Speaks," Harp brought TR to the front of the stage where he cut loose in exuberant, bluesy mode. Harp's solo in turn was full of energy and passion, which fairly much summed up the set as a whole.

In a way, Harp provides a link between jazz's past and the present. Gospel music—a notable part of his sound—had a huge influence on jazz for at least the first half century of its history, and the mixture of soul, funk and R&B that Harp purveyed were like signposts to some of the music that jazz has incorporated to a greater or lesser degree over the decades. Jazz for the ages.

One of the most eagerly awaited concerts of KLIJF 2012 was that of the trio lead by pianist Hiromi. She's been wowing audiences the world over with her quite breathtaking virtuosity for a decade now, but surprisingly, this was her first Malaysian concert. Accompanied by six-string bass pioneer Anthony Jackson on contrabass guitar, and five-time winner of the Downbeat Drummer of the Year award, Steve Smith, the trio presented material from Hiromi's exhilarating Voice (Telarc, 2011).

The album's title track opened the show in dramatic fashion, with all three musicians slipping in and out of fast unison lines and counterpoint. Hiromi's first solo was typically expansive and sweeping, riffing on a couple of chords, or repeating a figure over and over almost as resting points in between dazzling runs. Smith was equally fired up on his own thunderous solo. Spectacular stuff, but it was just a taste of what was to come. On the funky, New Orleans-flavored "Now or Never," Hiromi delighted in bashing the keys with her forearm in the middle of an endlessly creative solo. Hiromi—on electronic keyboards—and Jackson then threw each other short phrases in an entertaining tit-for-tat.

A swirling piano intro signaled the start of "Flashback," one of the more technically challenging numbers of the evening, and also one of the most melodically satisfying. A classically trained pianist from the age of six, it is no surprise that this idiom colors Hiromi's playing. Beethoven's Piano Sonata No 8, "Pathetique" was, after the initially quoted melody, really nothing more than a blues, though a delightfully meandering one at that. Smith on brushes and Jackson on hushed bass soon had to switch to bolder mode as Hiromi upped the pace, going from jaunty blues figures, to breathless runs up and down the keys that brought disbelieving laughter and applause from the KL crowd.

The title track of Hiromi's solo piano album, Place to Be (Telarc Records, 2010), combined tremendous right-hand technique with a finesse for which the pianist is seldom credited. Hiromi executed her trademark seemingly endless runs with a feather-light touch, slipping effortlessly into and out of "My Favorite Things" along the way. It was a wonderful performance and a highlight of the show, but there was still plenty of chops-busting playing to drool over. At the end of one dizzying solo, Hiromi peeled away from the piano as though she had simply run out of keys and gravity had taken over.

The standing ovation at the end demanded an encore, and the trio obliged with a slow blues. Jackson's gently paced solo paved the way for a final flourish from Hiromi, and her utterly distinctive voice seduced the ecstatic KL crowd one last time.

A standing ovation as Hiromi's trio left the stage led to another, twenty minutes later, to welcome legendary pianist Ahmad Jamal. There was a certain symbiosis at play, as Jamal had helped introduce Hiromi to an international audience a decade before. Jamal has been a Steinway artist for over fifty years and a magnificent example—one of only three in Malaysia—had been brought in especially for the pianist. For the next hour-and0-a-half, Jamal wove his customary magic, supported by as good a quartet as any he's ever led.

In fact, this quartet first recorded together on Jamal's Rossiter Road (Atlantic, 1986), but for much of the last twenty years Idris Muhammad held the drum stool until he retired in 2010. Herlin Riley is back in the fold now and his dynamic, intuitive interplay—above all with Jamal—was tremendously exciting to watch.

After one of Jamal's stirring-the-pot intros—all staccato chords, thunderous pressed drum rolls, tinkling percussion, darting bass runs and short piano glissandos—as if to check that everything was ship-shape—Jamal released the melody of "Invitation," the Bronislau Kaper tune that he first recorded on Ahmad Jamal with Strings (Rhapsody, 1966). Jamal used the melody as a springboard to develop improvisational themes for the guts of half an hour, throughout which he would allude briefly to the melody, as well as quoting "Billie's Bounce" in tribute to saxophonist Charlie Parker. The changes that Jamal called with a nod of the head, the raising of his left hand or sustained eye contact were responded to brilliantly by his musicians.

Such in-the-moment-communication explains why Jamal's trio is habitually positioned as closely together as possible, an arrangement suggested to Jamal years ago by pianist Monty Alexander, who was himself influenced by pianist Oscar Peterson's trio setup. The contrast with Hiromi's trio, spread across the entire stage, couldn't have been greater.

Former Weather Report percussionist Manolo Badrena was a constantly dynamic yet subtle presence. At one point, where Jamal brought the music down to a whisper, Badrena popped one explosive note that had Jamal turn in amused surprise. Jamal—along with Dizzy Gillespie—was one of the first jazz leaders of small ensembles to utilize a percussionist over half a century ago, and in Badrena he has found a particularly empathetic partner. Jamal let the music brew slowly, then raised his left arm in a slowly sweeping gesture that lifted the music, providing at the same time a striking image that underlined Jamal's orchestral approach to his music.

Jamal dedicated the episodic "Topsy Turvy" to Hiromi, flitting between tumbling runs and lyrical passages that seemed to pay tribute to pianist Bill Evans. Two tracks from Blue Moon (Jazz Village, 2012) showed different facets of the quartet. The title track exuded Caribbean swing, with Jamal mining Richard Rodgers/Lorenzo Hart's pretty melody as Badrena and Riley unleashed short but spectacular fireworks in stark contrast to Cammack's deep-rooted lyricism. Billy Reid's "Gypsy" succeeded much better live than on CD, as the visual drama of the precision-play between all four musicians was spectacular. Badrena's comic vocalizations brought an air of levity to taught ensemble interplay.

No Jamal show would be complete without his signature tune, Nat Simon/Buddy Bernier's "Poinciana." The pianist dedicated it to Rodin S.J. Kumar and Maizon Omar in recognition of their tremendous efforts in making KLIJF happen. In truth, it wouldn't have detracted from the concert one iota, had Jamal decided not to play "Poinciana." "One (Ahmad)"—from Jamal's overlooked One (20th Century Fox, 1978)—provided the set's most grooving composition and signaled the final hurrah. Jamal and his quartet's performance clearly touched the audience, which gave a rousing standing ovation in recognition of the fact that there is indeed, only one Jamal.

At 82, a day will come when Jamal's powers begin to wane but for the moment, this most influential of pianists is still following his muse and, judging by his outstanding performance at KLIJF 2012, playing just as beautifully as ever.

The challenge for the festival organizers now, is how do they top that? KLIJF 2012 was, musically speaking, a resounding success. In KLIJF, Kuala Lumpur has a music festival about which to be genuinely excited. Hopefully, the sponsors, media and public will give the festival the support it needs to sustain itself, not only for next year, but in the years and decades to come.

Photo Credit

All Photos: Courtesy KL International Jazz Festival/Pein Lee

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