Niu's 1st International Bangkok Jazz Festival, Dec. 11-12, 2009

Ian Patterson By

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Niu's 1st International Bangkok Jazz Festival
Baan Silom, Bangkok.

For two evenings, on the 11-12 December, the center of Bangkok came alive to the sounds of jazz, blues and world rhythms at Niu's 1st International Bangkok Jazz Festival.

With the likes of Chris Potter's Underground, James Carter, the Gwilym Simcock Trio and Richard Bona lighting up the stylish surroundings of the open air piazza of Baan Silom with a fabulous feast of improvisational music, this was undoubtedly the best jazz festival held in Thailand since the Jazz Royale Festival of 2006. That two-day extravaganza was held to honor King Bhumibhol's sixtieth anniversary on the throne and featured Nancy Wilson and the trios of Ahmad Jamal and McCoy Tyner.

Until the welcome arrival of Niu's 1st Inernational Jazz Festival, the situation for jazz lovers in the kingdom was looking increasingly bleak, with the demise of the Bangkok Jazz Festival and with the continuing downward slide of the Hua Hin Jazz Festival into a celebration of easy listening pop and schmaltz.

Niu's festival founder and director Joachim Schulz has certainly given fans of jazz, blues and world music in Bangkok something to cheer about. With the inestimable collaboration of promoter Mark Bolam of Enlightened Planet who brought half of the acts to the festival, they have between them succeeded in staging a world class music festival of which they can be rightly proud.

When perennial Bangkok favorite Koh Mr. Saxman bounced onto the stage, arm raised in characteristic salute, there were, however, more ushers in attendance than paying public. This must have been a disheartening sight for the festival organizers and the team at Niu's who worked so hard to put together a stunning-looking arena with a magnificent stage draped in curtains bathed in subtly changing lights as its centerpiece.

Given the quality of the music on offer the disappointing attendance for most of the performances simply underlined just how much of a challenge it is for would-be promoters to stage top-quality jazz, blues and world music in Bangkok.

None of this seemed to phase Koh Mr. Saxman, who played his customary energetic set of easy-on-the- ears jazz-funk. Showcasing songs from his new album, his sixth as leader, the music was smoothly melodious, with Koh dovetailing with guitarist Nat.

It was only when special guest and long-time collaborator, trumpeter Steve Cannon joined the band on stage that the music was given real impetus. Sax, trumpet and guitar drove each other on in turn, with Koh and Cannon in particular enjoying some lively sparring.

Koh habitually includes a composition of the much-loved King Bhumibol in his shows and on this occasion his band ran through a swinging version of "Love at Sunset." What began sounding very much like a nostalgia piece from the '40s suddenly shifted in meter and took on a much more modern dynamic, with the band coming together in powerful unison and Cannon carving out a solo with gusto

The set finished with Koh employing atmospheric echo effects on his saxophone before the rest of the band came in to rip up some more energized jazz-funk with closing solos from all.

The first of two notable and contrasting blues sets at Niu's 1st International Bangkok Jazz festival followed, with the duo of Washingtonian Phil Wiggins and New Orleans son Corey Harris creating a little roots magic.

Harmonica ace Wiggins and guitarist/vocalist Harris is a relatively recent pairing; Wiggin's thirty two- year partnership with fellow Washingtonian, guitarist John D. Cephas was only interrupted with the passing of Cephas in February this year , but he seems to have found an equally empathetic new partner in Harris.

Cephas and Wiggins built up a considerable reputation playing Piedmont, or East Coast blues, which borrows heavily from the ragtime tradition. Corey too, has blues roots which run deep, though this show was also steeped in the blues of the Mississippi Delta.

Such was the feeling for the music and the honesty that emanated from the performance that if you closed your eyes the music sounded like a phonograph recording from the '30s or '40s—albeit enhanced by the top-notch production courtesy of Jack Sound System.

Harris's voice holds something of the spirit of Muddy Waters, and this was most apparent on a gripping version of Robert Petway's "Catfish Blues" which Waters included in his sets.

Songs by Skip James, Sleepy John Estes and Charlie Patton revealed the easy understanding between Wiggins and Harris and their tremendous feel for this most infectious branch of American roots music.

Memorable was the rendition of Son House's "Preacher Blues" which contained the lines: "Gonna' be a Baptist preacher, gonna' join the Baptist church, gonna be a Baptist preacher so I sure don't have to work."

Cynicism aside, the music of the church has had an undoubtedly strong influence on both Wiggins and Harris, and this was heard in the gospel-inspired traditional song "By and by I'm Going to See the King," which Wiggins learned from Flora Molton, a slide guitarist gospel singer.

In this interpretation, with lovely bottle neck guitar from Harris, one could hear the music that has inspired everyone from Mississippi John Hurt to Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac. As Wiggins informed the crowd: "The only difference between the gospel and the blues music is the subject matter."

The subject matter surely shifted in "44 Blues" with the line: "gonna get even with the man" leaving no doubt as to the meaning of the song title. A couple of instrumentals highlighted the technical skills of the duo; Wiggins gave a wonderful exhibition of blues harp on the self-penned "Anacostia 2 Step" with Harris picking beautifully alongside. The chemistry between the two was clear for all to see.

Skip James's classic "Special Rider" with Harris's voice ringing out soulfully as harmonica and African- sounding guitar raised some dust, drew a line under a passionate, heartfelt performance, which was thoroughly enjoyed by those fortunate enough to have witnessed it.

Even before the awards and commissions began to roll in, Gwilym Simcock had drawn attention for his elegance, invention and burning technique on the piano in the groups of Bill Bruford, Malcolm Creese's chamber-like Acoustic Triangle and Tim Garland's pulsating Lighthouse Trio. It was not so much a question of whether, but rather when, he would strike out on his own.

Simcock's new trio consists of two rather special instrumentalists in bassist Yuri Goloubev and drummer James Maddren. On stage at Niu's the communication between the three was pronounced, with drums, bass and judicious pockets of silence highlighting and embellishing Simcock's never-less-than-captivating statements on piano.

The performance mostly showcased new material from Simcock's beautifully understated yet profound Blues Vignette.(Basho Records, 2009) Simcock may weary of always being referred to as a "twenty something" talent (though the complement is great) so the presence of twenty-two year-old James Maddren on drums may be something of a welcome diversion in that respect.

What is clear watching this trio performing however is that there is a maturity in their playing. The comparisons between the talent of Simcock with that of Keith Jarrett and Brad Mehldau could well extend to the respective trios.

"Longing to Be" opened the trio's set in stylish manner. After Simcock's lyrical intro Goloubev's bowed bass brought a classical, bitter-sweet melancholy to bear. As though seduced by the beauty, Maddren joined in, using just his hands.

The playing balanced perfectly on an edge which could either die as the softest of whispers or take flight in unrestrained passion. Goloubev's lithe solo opened the path for explorations by Simcock who carved out a fine solo without ever grand-standing or losing sight of the trio's voice. As his own voice increased in intensity Maddren switched to sticks and a new path was embarked upon, bold and intense. After climaxing, bowed bass and gentle mallets brought the tune home.

The trio continued with a new tune called "New in Town" which began in mellow mode, with Maddren on brushes. Shifting gears ever so slightly, Goloubev played a lovely walking bass as Simcock stretched out, mostly inhabiting the high end of the piano. Goloubev's mid-tempo solo was precise, with every note crystal clear, even when playing up-tempo, which no doubt is a result of years of playing in a classical context in Russia.

There is plenty of room to breathe in this trio, and neither lyricism nor swing was ever sacrificed in favor of exhibitions of technical mastery. "Blues Vignette" featured Simcock's most animated blues-edged playing and a moody intervention from bowed bass closed an impressive number.

Gershwin's "Nice Work if you Can Get It" was dedicated to festival director Joachim Schultz and showed Simcock's skills as an arranger. As with all his trio tunes there was a gentle yet pronounced ebb and flow to the music. Simcock repeated a motif while Maddren stamped his personality on a stylish drum solo where subtlety was the watchword.

"Plane Song" began as a gentle meditation with Goloubev taking a notable solo before gradually gaining steam. With Maddren providing wonderful support and color, Simcock played his most impressive solo of the evening, showing constant invention. The mid-tempo groove of Sonny Burke's classic "Black Coffee" was a delight. and Simcock's solo had a beautiful blues vein at its core.

The closing number of an excellent performance was "A Typical Affair." Goloubev's intro had all the fluidity of an electric bass, and from this emerged a vamp which launched the trio into a dancing, Latin- tinged passage. Solos from Simcock and Goloubev charged the air before a very funky groove at ever- increasing speed caught the trio and bound it together in a maelstrom of sound and energy. Tremendously impressive.

James Carter is a force of nature, a musical tsunami who blows away everybody in front of him. It was astute programming to close the first evening of the festival with his trio as its incendiary performance left the crowd wide-eyed and animated.

Drummer Leonard King set the tone for the show with a blistering intro to Oscar Pettiford's "Trick or Treat?" which nevertheless could not prepare the crowd for James Carter's sax solo which developed from a very melodic straight ahead take into a wild assault on the instrument which saw Carter's body jerking this way and that as though in spasms.

One could imagine that Charlie Parker had a similar effect on people seeing him for the first time, though in spite of the speed and flurry of Carter's notes the melody itself was never lost, which was quite a feat. Hammond organist Gerrard Gibbs took a hugely entertaining solo before passing the baton back to Carter who pulled an even more hallucinatory solo from his hat.

Carter is old school at heart, though, and like Sonny Rollins likes to quote old popular songs that send him spiraling off in another direction. The second number started with Carter's horn crying like a steam train's whistle, Gibbs undertaking bass duties on his keyboard and Leonard King laying down a driving beat.

Gibbs, who was first introduced to the Hammond through the music of the much overlooked Richard "Groove" Holmes, took an energetic solo which threw all caution to the wind while handling bass duties at the same time. Carter's tenor solo, building from a gentle base became increasingly flamboyant and he dug out intense sounds from his instrument which set him off writhing and jerking in sympathy.

There is another side to Carter, and the slower, swinging "Mysterioso" by Guido Luciana was extremely lyrical, with his sax purring gently and seductively over waves of Hammond sound. Gibbs mid-tempo Hammond spot was a show highlight, switching to vocorder and delivering a soulful, funky solo which hinted at Stevie Wonder. When Carter entered the fray the tempo increased and his playing recognized no boundaries—as wild as the '60s avant gardists but essentially melodic.

"Little Hat's Odyssey," dedicated to Carter's son, saw him play a sweet solo on flute over shimmering cymbals and dreamy keyboards. The tempo duly shifted into overdrive as first Gibbs and then Carter let go over a pulsating Afro- Latin rhythm. After blowing ferociously for a significant time Carter made way for King to create a fire of his own on the drum kit, before returning to the flute and the calm of the beginning.

The three musicians were obviously having a lot of fun on stage, particularly on a slow-burning blues, which saw tremendous solos from Gibbs and Carter. A more straight-ahead jazz number featured further outrageous blowing from Carter and brought down the curtain on an exhilarating performance.

Singer/pianist Eden Brent is on a roll; winner of Acoustic Artist of the Year and Acoustic Album of the Year at the blues Grammy awards, formerly the W.C. Handy Awards, she has just recently been nominated for the coveted Pinetop Perkins Best Blues Pianist Award. No wonder she greeted the crowd by saying: "Like my mamma used to say, I feel good all over better than anywhere else" before launching into the rollicking boogie woogie of "Mississippi Flatland Blues."

This lively opening set the tone for a performance which rarely dipped in energy levels. Brent is an accomplished boogie woogie pianist with a hint of barrelhouse blues thrown in. Her playing was punctuated with an engaging banter, ribald in nature.

Her songs too, have a saucy tone; "Big Fat Woman," "Steppin' In..." and "Dirty Old Woman" were foot-to- the floor celebrations of women's sexuality. Brent's left hand pounded out heavy, rolling bass motifs and her right hand executed glissandos which were quite thrilling at times.

A couple of slower numbers, "Something Cool" and a love song to South Africa showed Brent's sandpaper and honey-toned voice in a more lyrical light and her skill at carrying a ballad.

Sparks flew when Brent was in full flight, and Ray Charles "What'd I Say" and a tribute to mentor Boogaloo Ames built around Louis Jordan's "Caledonia" were other highlights of a hot performance.

Swiss pianist/composer Francois Lindemann is an adventurous musician, after all, who would conceive of playing in an ensemble of seven pianos as Lindemann does? At Niu's Lindemann led a more conventional septet, with trumpet, trombone, sax, guitar and rhythm section which played his own compositions and an arrangement of a traditional Thai song.

The first few numbers were fairly straight-ahead arrangements which were though harmonically interesting. The three-piece brass section of trumpeter Rusrem Galiulin, trombonist Jirathitkarn Hemsuwan and saxophonist Tewan Sapsangyakorn created a big, rich sound.

Galiulin took an extended solo on the opener and displayed a strong voice with clear lines and little in the way of embellishment. Bangkok-based guitarist Dan Philips also played an extended solo which showed him to be a player of great skill and no little style.

Arguably the most interesting part of the concert was when the musicians left the stage to Lindemann and Thai multi-instrumentalist Sapsangyakorn. They then executed a fascinating improvisation, with Sapsangyakorn, playing an array of exotic flutes while Lindmann gravitated from his initial abstractions on electric keyboards to a more lyrical passage on piano. Lindemann then turned his attention to a series of gongs from Thailand, China and Indonesia, as well as a little tree of stacked cymbals.

Their many years of collaboration together were plain to see in the assured give-and-take between them which translated into a creation of genuine grace. "Silent Night" sounded lovely on Chinese flute with subtle piano accompaniment and this seasonal melody brought a near twenty-minute improvisation to a delicate end. The mixture of jazz with folk and hymn was adventurous, but as Lindemann emphasized: "That is what jazz is about—taking some risks in music, like in life."

Chris Potter's Undergound played in an infrequent quartet format minus the habitual keyboards of Craig Taborn. In spite of this, there was absolutely nothing lacking in an electric performance which rocked the crowd at Niu's.

A swinging, groove-heavy set was underpinned by the terrific rhythm section of Nate Smith on drums and Scott Colley on bass. With the simplest of motifs, or just a couple of plucked notes Colley injected a mother-load of swing into the music, aided by the power and invention of Smith.

Although technical prowess is a given with Potter, and there was no shortage of gripping solos, this was a quartet which exuded musicality. The lovely traditional Ghanan folk-inspired song, "Togo," featured subtle guitar work from Adam Rogers who coaxed a lovely kora-like sound from his strings. Potter, Colley and Smith soloed in turn on a powerful, elegant number.

The blues-influenced "Pop Tune Number 1" started slowly with Rogers tastefully understated playing. The song grew gradually in intensity, becoming a funk workout, during which Potter took a hedonistic solo which was constantly absorbing.

One of the great things about Chris Potter's Underground is its openness to all musical influences. The band is as much informed by electronic, hip-hop and pop music as it is by jazz. This lack of musical boundaries infuses the music with the sound of surprise; Duke Ellington's ballad "The Single Petal on a Rose" from "The Queen's Suite" from '59, and Radiohead's lyrically violent "Morning Bell" from 2000 were united by a lyricism in the collaborative playing which transcended both time and genre.

The Adam Roger's tune "Rumples" from Underground's Ultrahang(ArtistShare,2009) was a vehicle for extended soloing from Rogers and Smith, and by the time Potter leapt into the fray the band was flying, driven by the dynamo of a rhythm section.

The encore of "Morning Bell" slowed things down a little. Roger's quiet ruminations on guitar, Smith's employment of one brush and one stick and Colley's gentle bass pulse set the tone for some relaxed blowing from Potter. The meditative Thom Yorke number ebbed and flowed and served as a beautiful closing statement from a truly wonderful band.

The final word at Niu's 1st International Bangkok Jazz Festival went to bassist Richard Bona and his band. Like Potter, Bona enjoys a reputation as one of the world's leading instrumentalists, yet perhaps surprisingly this was a show which lacked the expected individual brilliance, particularly from Bona himself.

Instead, Bona seemed content to lead the ensemble through a set of harmonically and melodically arresting compositions whose flavor reflected the Cameroonian's tenure in the bands of Joe Zawinul, Manu Dibango and Pat Metheny—original and subtle, tuneful and groove- based for sure, but perhaps for some tastes lacking a little the individual stamp of the musicians' personalities on the music.

A beautiful keyboard passage from Etienne Stadwijk ushered in Bona's soulful voice on "Te Misea." Bona has spent much of his career as a sideman, which has tended to overshadow his own music and especially his wonderful voice.

Bona is also a fine arranger and created pretty harmonies by matching guitarist Jean-Cristophe Mailard from Guadalupe and New York trumpeter Mike Rodriguez. Trombonist Marshall Gilkes joined Rodriguez to make a small but potent brass section and they fused to great effect on the melodious "Kalabancoro" and the irresistibly funky pop tune "Please Don't Stop" which featured a soaring heavy metal solo from Mailard.

Oddly, the show only featured a couple of tracks from Bona's The Ten Shades of Blue(Wrasse Records, 2009), the delicate ballad "M'bemba Mama"which featured tasteful piano and bass, the brushes of Calvaire and understated brass, and the Indian-influenced "Shiva Mantra." The latter song was given a slight Balkan flavor by the brass section.

Bona is most often compared to bass legend Jaco Pastorius and the in truth there's not much light between them. Bona's tribute to Pastorius began with an infectious take on the departed legend's "Liberty City," with Rodriguez and Gilkes recreating something of the intensity of Pastorius's big band version.

Guitar and 'bone cut short but telling solos prior to a powerful ensemble passage which paid tribute to Weather Report with a snatch of "Birdland," a keyboard solo which was strongly evocative of Joe Zawinul and the bass line to Zawilnul's "Black Market" from the seminal album of the same name. Bona, much to the crowd's delight, let go on his most expansive solo of the set.

A delightful solo vocal spot from Bona saw him layering harmonies via a foot pedal to create an African choral piece of real beauty. The set wound up with a couple of danceable salsa-infused pieces;"O Sen Sen Sen" featured nice turns from Gilkes and Rodriguez and rather sheepish crowd participation, and "Djombwe" which threw up some serious funk. Bona and friends were called back for an encore and played an out-and- out salsa piece which stirred the crowd to get up and dance.

The unselfconscious mixture of jazz, pop, African rhythms and tight ensemble playing that characterized the music of Weather Report is close to the core of Bona's musical philosophy. Individual ego is largely suppressed to serve the cause of the ensemble's sound and without this discipline the music wouldn't be nearly as effective. This was a powerful performance with soul and groove in equal measure.

It was a brave venture to start a jazz festival in Bangkok in the current economic climate. If Joachim Schulz can find the support to match his own enthusiasm then there is every chance that Niu's Bangkok Jazz Festival will become a much needed annual fixture in the Bangkok calendar.

Photo credits
Courtesy of Niu's on Silom

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