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Kuching Waterfront Jazz Festival 2018: New Contender on the South East Asia Block

Rob Garratt By

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KWJF is still a baby by international festival standards--it will be fun watching it grow
Kuching Waterfront Jazz Festival 2018
Grand Margherita Hotel
Kuching, Sarawak State, Borneo
September 28-29, 2018

As one of the world's fastest growing economic regions, South East Asia is also a prime market for jazz—and, specifically, that chest- beating claxon of affluence, the festival. Joining the established ranks of Indonesia's Java Jazz and Singapore's Sing Jazz, enters the Kuching Waterfront Jazz Festival (KWJF), in September 2018 sprouting up on the north-western tip of Borneo for a second incarnation.

With doubtless half an eye on the enduring appeal of neighboring Miri's three-day, 12-year-old Borneo Jazz Festival—and a lusty gaze transfixed on the 20,000 listeners who traipse through town annually on their way to the Rainforest World Music Festival, hosted in the wilds of the Sarawak Cultural Village—the two-night KWJF is not just the state capital's first proper jazz festival, but reportedly Kuching's largest annual music event to date.

For some international ears, the sweet spot was found where regional traditions intersected with improvisatory impulses—such as standout multilingual party-starters D'Cipta Band. This energizing eight-piece slickly mixes jazz, R&B and local flavors in a homogenous post-global stew—epitomized by a brisk bossa nova performed endearingly in a local dialect.

The same carnival vibe drives Tuku Kame Jazz, a stunning nine-piece built to showcase Borneo's traditional sapeh, a wood-carved lute. Leading sapeh proponent Narwai H Rashidi stood flanked by two sister sapeh players—one a lower-register affair sounding rather like a hybrid electric guitar, whose head-nodding lines were propelled by layers of percussion and peppered with rousing vocal charts and horn lines. Borneo's transnational instrument also took center stage in the looser, jazzier and often Latin-tinged Sang Voyage, a capital-F fusion sextet led by French expat Julian Cottet, who addressed his electrified sapeh with the tone and bravado of a guitar—a macho voice counterbalanced by fluid flautist Michelle Wong.

The latter band opened proceedings after winning a local talent search, whose previous victor, pianist Jolynn J Chin, was invited back for another round. A ferocious, if precocious, classical player, the young virtuoso's dizzying ambitions could not wrestle free from a dithering delivery— her casting of Bach's Partitas for jazz trio was let down by a rhythm section which struggled over the score, while tackling a standard as storied as "My Favorite Things" demands greater improvisatory invention than repeatedly pummeling pentatonic piano phrases.

This quartet of homegrown fusionists will perhaps take note from Carmen Souza [pictured above], probably the festival's greatest international draw and the only booking hailing from beyond the Asia-Pacific region. Since her 2005 debut, Ess ê nha Cabo Verde (Iberautor), the Portuguese singer-songwriter has developed a singular voice, mining her Cape Verdean heritage alongside a jazz-world aesthetic with refreshing results.

Backed by her trio—under the ever-watchful eye of longterm musical partner/bassist Theo Pas'cal—Souza's live sound conjures bare boxes in exotic wrapping; simple, soulful vamps underscored by jiving polyrhythms and hidden pulses. Flitting between pinickity piano and perfunctory guitar work, it is all in service of Souza's voice, sailing subtly subtly around the groove and leading the audience in creole cadence during epic set closer "Afri Ka."

The other intercontinental booking was the Natalie Gillespie Band, an Australian quartet of aspiring grooviness—neither funky enough to be called funk, bluesy enough to be blues or soulful enough for soul—and possessing the air of a glorified bar band. Tellingly, the overzealous eponymous lead singer was squarely blown off the stage when Singapore's Alemay Fernandez sat with the Aussie's Strat-toting backing band at a pre-festival preview.

Leading her own moodier, groovier outfit a night later, Fernandez repeated the trick, this time holding nothing back from her delivery, moving between a whole-hearted barrelhouse blues howl to a vertiginous jazz scat, gleefully scaling the chassis of Betty Carter's "Tight." The smoky Hammond organ and sax slurs of Fernandez's trio suggests a lifetime haunting afterhours joints, and the Lion City's premier diva has notably stepped up to guest with the Count Basie Orchestra and the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

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