Borneo Jazz Festival 2010

Ian Patterson By

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Miri International Jazz Festival
Sarawak, Malaysia, Borneo
May 14-15, 2010

The Miri International Jazz Festival in Sarawak province Malaysia, on the island of Borneo, can lay claim to being the only jazz festival on the South China Sea. A long line of tankers and cargo ships stretches across the horizon like buttons sewn on a vast blue cloth and attests to Miri's century-old history as an oil town. Located in the lush grounds of the ParkCity Everly Hotel, the stage facing the sea was the scene for two days of music, drawing artists from Thailand, Indonesia, the USA, Brazil, Holland and Switzerland. Now in its fifth year, the MIJF is the cultural jewel in the crown of the Sarawak Tourism Board, whose stated aim is to use the festival as a magnet to draw tourists to the province.

Viewed from this point of view the festival has proven to be a success, with the attendance growing from two thousand in 2006, its inaugural year, to six and a half thousand in 2009. Over forty percent of last year's festival-goers came from abroad, with many expats making the relatively short trip from neighboring Brunei.

Although many attending MIJF came to Sarawak to explore the dense tropical rain forest that covers two thirds of this part of Borneo, or to venture into some of the most spectacular caves in the world, for increasing numbers of peninsular Malaysians, locals and visitors from neighboring Brunei and Indonesia, the music itself is the main attraction. This year, visitors also came from as far as the UK, Australia and Japan. As festival programmer Randy Raine-Reuche put it: "Jazz fans are nuts; they are very devout." The faithful, nuts or not, were certainly satisfied with the offering served up by the musicians over two days, and it is fair to say that from humble beginnings the festival has grown and gained a deserved reputation for throwing up good bands.

The quality of the program, which was musically quite diverse, is down to Raine-Reuche, co-founder as well of the highly successful Rainforest Music Festival, also staged in Malaysian Borneo. Getting the balance of bands right is no easy task but what was immediately striking about this year's program was the complete absence of Malaysian bands, something which was equally baffling to Raine-Reuche: "There are four hundred applications for eight spots. There's a spot here for a Malaysian band every year, but if they don't apply like everyone else, I'm not going to chase them. It's the same process at every other festival in the world." The general consensus however, among both organizers and journalists alike, was that, with the exception of a few top names, Malaysian jazz artists are not quite of the caliber to play in an international jazz festival. Greater exposure to quality jazz, it is hoped, will have a knock-on effect in the future.

The opening act at MIJF '10 was Mellow Motif from Thailand. Mellow Motif is not quite the smooth brand of jazz that Thailand generally favors, taking more risks and stretching out a little. Although the set consisted entirely of non- originals the band played an upbeat set which swung from first note to last. Led by charter members Natasha Patamapongs on vocals and Eugene Ang on piano, the band kicked off with "Lemon Tree" and then glided through a samba-tinged "The Lady is a Tramp," the Rodgers and Hart tune receiving a tasteful solo from Sarit Tanpensuk on flugelhorn. The Gershwins' rarely heard "Little Jazz Bird" and a fast and breezy "Happy Talk," from Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific, saw the rhythm section of drummer Chantur Techatana-Nan, double bassist Ponchart Viriyapark and Ang inject real verve into the music.

Patamapongs introduced Joao Gilberto's "O Pato" explaining how a duck invites his friends to dance with him, highlighting the beauty of the message contained in the lyrics. The Bruneian in the disha dasha dancing animatedly may have been dancing alone but the music had got to him. A faithful but impressive rendition of the jazz standard associated with Benny Goodman and Lionel Hampton, "Airmail Special," featured the notable scatting abilities of Patamapongs; an undeniably talented singer, her delivery brimmed with confidence, and she transmitted her bubbly personality into the music. An encore of "Night and Day" included the most extended solo of the set from the flugelhorn of Tanpensuk, sealing an enjoyable performance emphatically—a perfect festival-opening act.

Next up was Swiss guitarist Jeremy Tordjman. He has played with African musicians for over ten years and lists his influences as jazz, rock, pop, soul, funk, hip-hop and electronica. With such an all-encompassing outlook on music, an eclectic set would have come as no surprise, but instead Tordjman led his electric trio through a straight ahead set with real teeth. His musical roots may burrow all the way down to Jimi Hendrix, but this is music very much of the present, much in the same way that Wayne Krantz's trio with Keith Carlock and Tim Lefebvre is inspired by the great electric trios of the past while remaining utterly contemporary. Tordjman's playing draws less from the blues well than Hendrix but has a serious dose of funk and rock.

For fans of guitar virtuosity this show was a real treat, with Tordjman taking solo after ripping solo. Tordjman is, however, an inherently sensitive musician: there was plenty of light and shade in his solos and in the collective playing of the trio. Drummer Robert Julliard provided an uncluttered, driving backbeat, and Marco Panzarella's grooving bass lines shot up your legs and hit the liver. This was an energized and engaging performance.

"Nostalgia of the Future" may have reached a powerful conclusion, but the journey proved one of gradual build up and increasing tension in the playing. Memorable motifs colored all the compositions and, although Tordjman's solos were extended, they were never repetitive nor felt overly long, testament to his creativity and musicianship.

In between sets Australian DJ BeBe spun groove and funk-laced tunes in the pavilion adjacent to the stage. The pavilion formerly housed the main stage of MIJF and can hold several thousand people. The world dance rhythms were infectious, but the excessive lighting brought out the inhibitions of most of the adults, leaving the floor open to the unselfconscious free-style exhibitions of the children in tow. Relocating the music to an outdoor stage has been a wise move from the festival organizers as there was no comparison between the superb quality of the sound system outside and the slightly dampened, muddy sound inside the pavilion.

One of the obvious crowd-pleasers of MIJF was Norbert Susemihl's New Orleans All Stars, which had the crowd swaying, stomping and dancing throughout the concert to New Orleans classics old and new. Susemihl, a one-time resident of New Orleans, brought this band together especially for the festival and it had only one hour-long rehearsal the day prior to the concert. There were no signs of unfamiliarity among the musicians nor of jet lag following a grueling, circuitous fifty four- hour trip door to door due to the volcanic ash from Iceland. On the contrary, the band and the audience thrived on each other's energy.

The front line of Charles Halloran on trombone, Orange Kjellin on clarinet and Susemihl on trumpet and vocals combined beautifully on "The New Orleans Hop Stop Blues," weaving rich harmonies and powerful unison lines. Kjellin and Susemihl in particular impressed as soloists, though Susemihl's vocals lacked the strength and color of his trumpet playing. The tempo was mostly upbeat, and on "Lover Come Back to Me" Susemihl and bassist Kerry Lewis both soloed with a measure of abandon.

Lewis before the gig recounted for this reviewer how he had been in exile from New Orleans for three years in the wake of the devastating Hurricane Katrina and spoke of the sense of abandonment that he and many others felt by the then Bush administration. However, although administrations, hurricanes and volcanoes do their damndest, they cannot dim the passion of musicians for this music; Lewis's playing was vital and soulful, epitomizing the regenerating power of jazz—the "life force" of this music, as Nat Hentoff calls it.

"Sweet Emma," the Nat Adderley tune inspired by Emma Barrett's playing/singing at Preservation Hall in the '60s which so impressed the trumpeter, featured eloquent statements from Susemihl and pianist Georg Hawks on a slower number which provided welcome contrast to the mostly fast-paced set. At whatever tempo the band played at, from the calypso-flavored "Cuban Pete" to the Porter Steel song "High Society" (popularized by Alphonse Picou before its revival in the 1956 Crosby-Sinatra MGM musical) all the way up to "Happy Feet Blues" by Wynton Marsalis, the music swung. The set closed with another old favorite, the funeral celebration "Didn't He Ramble" and the encore, Fats Domino's "I'm Walking," rounded things off in style with the crowd showing warm appreciation for this timeless music.

The first day of MIJF '10 closed with headliner Michael Shrieve's Spellbinder. Immortalized in Michael Wadleigh's documentary Woodstock (Warner Bros, 1970) for his incendiary drum solo in front of half a million people during Santana's "Soul Sacrifice" at the legendary festival, Shrieve has come a long way since then. He has played with an impressive array of musicians across musical genres during his long career and was something of a pioneer in the field of electronic percussion in the '70s. He has also composed film soundtracks and was inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in '98.

Spellbinder is a five-piece band based in Seattle, and it plays a weekly residency at Chris Lang's Tost, which showed in the tightness of the ensemble interplay. That there is some resemblance to Santana's music is not surprising given Shrieve's eight album, five-year tenure in the band. As Santana himself recognizes, Shrieve had a huge influence on the guitarist by turning him onto the music of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Though Shrieve refuses to revisit "Soul Sacrifice," which could easily have become a millstone around his neck, Spellbinder did perform Shrieve's own "Every Step of the Way" which appeared on Santana's exquisite Caravanserai (Sony, 1972)—an album on which Shrieve contributed as composer to almost half the compositions—and another Santana staple, the funky "Jungle Strut" written by tenor legend Gene Ammons.

However, this is Spellbinder and muted trumpet, shimmering Hammond B3 and occasional employment of bass synth and guitar synth combined to create an altogether distinctive musical identity. The music merged rock, jazz fusion and funk, blurring the lines at every turn. Shrieve's drumming these days eschews overt showmanship, and there is plenty of space in his playing, with the needs of the music coming first. With Farko Dosumov on bass, the pair formed a deeply grooving rhythm section, laying a base from which guitarist Danny Godinez, trumpeter John Fricke and Hammond B3 player Joe Doria created ever-evolving soundscapes.

Most of the tunes came from the band's Live at Tost (CBSF, 2008) Godinez's tune "Flamingo" chartered vaguely psychedelic territory over a catchy hook line which Dosumov maintained on bass. First Godinez and then Fricke soloed strongly, with Dosumov switching to synth bass and coaxing lovely sounds from his strings. Only on the shifting patterns of "Moon over You" did Shrieve let himself go. After a short but captivating drum intro the tune settled into a gently swinging groove, punctuated by Fricke's potent trumpet and Godinez's sinewy explorations. When Godinez switched to synth guitar the tempo was raised, and urged on by the rhythm section, he stretched out. As the music ebbed and flowed, Fricke's moody, echoing electric trumpet sounds pierced the night air and Godinez feathery guitar harked back to late '60s Miles.

"They Love me Fifteen Feet Away," a vehicle for an extended jam, may be Shrieve's homage to his audiences, but in fact he is a very approachable guy with time for the people who show an interest in his music. Judging by the cheers and applause at the end of the encore, "Jungle Strut," Shrieve and Spellbinder were indeed loved by the Miri crowd.

The pregnant black clouds which greeted day two of MIJF '10 took little time to shed their load, and a heavy tropical downpour ensued for most of the morning. Although the rain abated during the early afternoon the sky was ominously dark and it was no surprise when opening act SimakDialog from Indonesia started its set under steady rain. Pianist Riza Arshad greeted Miri thus: "Hello Miri, hello rain, hello trees and hello grass," which was not inappropriate as the only people facing the band when it started its set were the soundboard crew. Slowly, however, within seconds of beginning, a few souls trickled towards the stage, sheltering under umbrellas and waterproofs, and their numbers swelled steadily, drawn by the exotic, hypnotic sounds which cut through the rain.

Seventeen years and five albums down the line SimakDialog has carved out a unique place in the Indonesian music scene. The band fuses Javan Sundanese rhythms—distinguished by kendang drum (double-headed conical drum) and temple-esque gamelan gongs ---with roving improvisations on keyboards and guitar and spacey soundscapes that conjured up Miles Davis's Bitches Brew. (Columbia, 1969). Like an Indonesian Zawinul Syndicate, Simakdialog inhabits the no-man's land between world music and jazz; it is a heady, intoxicating mix that envelops the listener in a pulsating, brooding storm of flowing rhythms and free improvisation.

Opening with "Karuhun" from Demimasa (Moonjune Records, 2009) Arshad stirred up spacey sounds over a percussive wave which raced through the blood. The kendang played by Endang Ramdam and Erlan Suwardana seems like a hybrid African/Indian instrument; played sitting cross legged, the foot alters the pressure and the tone of the drum. On the powerful "Kemarau" there was a distinctly Indian quality to the two kendang during the blistering opening segment with Arshad's telegraph-like Rhodes riff charging the air. The gamelan gongs more commonly consist of between ten and twenty-four pieces, but metallophon percussionist Cucu Kurnia had only two, which he employed in a ceaseless pulse. In addition, Kurnia favored Ceng-Ceng—small overlapping cymbals—for further rhythmic tonalities. The rhythm section was completed by Adhitya Pratama on electric bass, who brought a deep, quietly grooving bottom end to the music.

The complex rhythms, the unison playing between Tohpati's guitar and keyboard, and the atmospheric sound effects create a rich and dense sound, and the band always travel with their own sound engineer to ensure the mix is just right. The music and the mix was obviously appealing, as by the middle of the performance the area in front of the stage was a jungle of umbrellas as the rain continued to fall, though with less conviction than before.

The closing "Unfaded Hopes" was a slow piece in sharp contrast to the other numbers. This melancholy-tinged composition featured a fine extended solo from Tohpati, who rang Pat Metheny-like lines from his strings, softly as in a ballad at first and growing slowly to soar freely before returning to the beautiful melody, all the while accompanied by gently supportive kendang and gamelan. It was an emotive conclusion to the set. SimakDialog means "listen carefully to the dialogue" and what a wonderful dialogue it was.

A recurring topic of discussion in the press conferences at the start of each day and a subject of debate among the music journalists covering MIJF '10 was: what constitutes jazz these days? As the music spreads ever further around the globe, absorbing the rhythms and instruments of other nations—as indeed it has always done—it is a question which is becoming harder to answer, not that it was really ever that easy. Duke Ellington described his music as being in a constant state of becoming, which hints at the essence of jazz. He also suggested doing away with the term "jazz" as long ago as the 1920s, suggesting it be called Negro music, a moniker which obviously never stuck. Charles Mingus described his music as "Mingus music," and Ahmad Jamal refers to jazz as "American Classical Music." John Coltrane called it "universal music." Clouding the issue further still, Miles Davis announced in one of his final print interviews: "Jazz is dead."

So where does that leave us? Jazz is a myriad of styles from ragtime of the 1890s right up to the fusions of this decade. All the styles that have evolved over the last one hundred and twenty years have depended heavily on each other and borrowed liberally from the existing vocabulary. No wonder jazz is a difficult word to define; jazz is different things to different people. What is clear is that jazz is no longer the sole preserve of America; to suggest otherwise would be analogous to saying football is an English game. Jazz, like football is out there—it belongs to everybody. Maybe Eugene Ang from Mellow Motif was right when he stated: "I feel the question is irrelevant."

Nobody however, would have argued that the music of pianist Amina Figarova's sextet was anything other than jazz. Having studied classical piano in her native Azerbaijan, she moved to Europe and is now based in Holland where she has spent the last ten years leading a sextet which interprets her original compositions.

The opening number erupted in double time, with trumpeter Ernie Hammes and then Figarova taking exciting solos which spared nothing. The driving rhythm at the heart of the music, courtesy of bassist Sven Happel and animated drummer Chris "Buckshot" Strik was infectious. Flautist Bart Platteau, who impressed throughout the set, took a vivacious solo brimming with ideas which brought the sextet back to the head and out.

Figarova's compositions are characterized by dynamic, propulsive rhythms, orchestral passages with an inherent melodicism, and impassioned soloing. The three-pronged front line of flute, trumpet and Johannes Meuller's tenor introduced the melody in most of the numbers, sounding as one voice. Figarova for her part mixes up a slightly percussive approach to the keys with a free flowing lyricism. On "Breakfast for the Elephants" she spun an attractive extended solo which visited the entire range of the keyboard with only bass and drums for company. Drummer Strik is one of the most talented drummers in Europe; an absolute bundle of energy, he stoked the engine of the band with his insistent rhythms and inventive prodding and cajoling which endeared him to the crowd. His drumming using just his hands on "Look at That" was visually and sonically impressive.

This latter tune with Spanish vein was a highlight of the set and put the spotlight on Figarova whose cascading runs and imaginative ideas were absorbing. The closing number again featured a beautiful flute solo from Platteau and full blooded sparring between the muted trumpet of Hammes and the guttural tenor of Mueller. Like Japanese pianist Eri Yamamoto, Figarova's compositions are inspired by the everyday experiences that make up her life. Her music is her stories, and that is the very essence of jazz.

Violinist Ricardo Herz, a graduate of Berklee and former student of Didier Lockwood brought the sounds of Brazil to MIJF '10; his quartet merged choro, samba, and folk rhythms in a melodious and rhythmically dynamic set. Luque Silva's seven string guitar added bottom end to the bass of Meno Del Picchia on bass, while Ito Pedro on a conventional drum kit provided the drive which sparked Herz's improvisations.

The music was above all highly melodic and swung in a way that only Brazilian music can. Herz (on right) is a lively performer, seemingly dancing with his instrument in close embrace, and a wonderful technician to boot. At its most animated the music bore resemblance to jigs and reels though there were quieter pieces and his balladic duet with Luque on seven-string guitar bore a beautiful melancholy.

The violin is an instrument which perhaps more than others is able to imitate the human voice and Herz's lyrical playing suggested that most of the songs in the set originally had words, though he didn't introduce any of the songs other than to say: 'this is a choro from Rio.' Herz's solo spot, with only bass drum for support, saw him looping layer upon layer of riffs and short flowing bursts over which he improvised in lively manner. Elsewhere he demonstrated his versatility by setting aside his bow and plucking his strings as though it were a mandolin. Herz however, has no need of special effects or gimmickry, for the band's sound is captivating enough and his swinging, folk edged playing a delight.

The final concert of MIJF '10 was blues legend James 'Superharp' Cotton and his blues band. The band minus Cotton warmed up the crowd with two tunes which set the mood for the rest of the evening: a funky version of "Let the Good Times Roll" and a slow burning "How Blue Can you Get?" Were Thomas Holland merely a vocalist he would hold his place in any blues band, but he's also a top notch guitarist with an exciting, sharp attack which cries one minute and whispers the next, drawing clear inspiration from BB King. Bassist Noel Neal took a technically impressive solo on the former and drummer Kenny Ray Neal and Harrison Allen on additional guitar also stretched out early on.

Cotton entered the stage to an introduction from Holland that would have done a Las Vegas boxing emcee proud. Showing his seventy five years as he shuffled slowly onto the stage, the years fell away once the harp was in his mouth. On the slow number which followed Cotton's warm tone and full sound was heard to great effect; long, mournful notes filled the night air and a repeated motif which he sustained for a full minute stirred the crowd.

The music alternated between fast and slow numbers, with Cotton playing mostly a rhythmic role on the faster tunes. His harp found more room for expression when the tempo slowed and he revived the eternal spirit of Sonny Boy Williamson and Sonny Terry on "That's Alright" with an extended solo that demonstrated that few notes can be emotionally charged. But even when Cotton was only jamming unobtrusively along with the band when it was in full flow the crowd was swept up in the spirit of the blues and moved to the music with obvious delight.

A bouncing version of "Got My Mojo Working," featured a call-and-response between Holland and the crowd, which no doubt left some a little hoarse. Cotton played the refrain for a few more bars and seemed content to jam along indefinitely to the clapping of the crowd, but the curtain fell as it must, and he exited the stage to warm applause as the band played him off in style. The crowd brought him back on for one more number, a fast-paced blues workout with everyone taking a final bow.

Amazingly, it is sixty-six years since James Cotton opened for Sonny Boy Williamson and sixty years since he cut his first record for Sun Records. At seventy five Cotton may have retired the back flip that he used to do on stage but the hunger to perform is still there; to fly half way around the world to play one concert is proof of that. Although Cotton has played electric blues for many years now, at Miri he expressed a desire to record another acoustic blues album, a follow up to the Grammy-winning Deep in the Blues (Verve Records, 1996) which he recorded with Joe Louis Walker and Charlie Haden. One more Grammy, and he may well end up on the Mount Rushmore of blues artists.

A twenty-minute jam session complete with fireworks featured musicians from all the bands and put the seal on MIJF '10. Chicago blues rubbed shoulders with New Orleans and a modern jazz front line riffed over Indonesian kendang. Brazilian flavored violin, piano, flute, tenor trumpet, scatting, drums and electric guitar cut through the roaring ensemble and the whole sounded rather like a joyously ragged version of Duke Ellington's band in full Newport flight. If Randy Raine-Reuch acting as conductor hadn't signaled an end to the proceedings, everybody might well still be there, rain or no rain.

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