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Penang Island Jazz Festival 2012

Penang Island Jazz Festival 2012
Ian Patterson By

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9th Penang Island Jazz Festival
Bayview Hotel
Penang, Malaysia
November 29—December 2, 2012

From pickup at the airport at 10.30pm to personal send-off five days later at 4.00am, Paul Augustin, the Director of the Penang Island Jazz Festival, is what you could call the perfect host. It's this personal touch—instilled in the festival staff's ethos—that sets the PIJF apart from many bigger and more famous festivals. It's no surprise therefore, with such personal attention the norm, that the good vibes translate to the musicians and from the musicians to the audience. Augustin has a good handle on what a festival is supposed to deliver and more often than not, PIJF does just that. PIJF 2012 offered up many highlights over four days.

Musicians love playing at the PIJF because the treatment they receive is warm and refreshingly relaxed, which is not to say that the festival's organization is in any way sloppy; in fact, just the opposite is the case. Augustin and his business partner in Capricorn Connections, Chin Cy, have managed to keep the same team together for nine years—many of the volunteers, the excellent sound team, the emcees and the tireless backroom staff keep coming back for more year after year, and the running of the festival is water tight. Turn around time between bands on the main stage, for example, only once exceeded the ten minute allocation and the sound, without exception, was excellent.

It's not just the PIJF staff who have shown tremendous loyalty throughout the years; having covered four editions of the PIJF for All About Jazz, I can vouch that many in the crowd have been regular attendees for years. From Penang, Kuala Lumpur and Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia and from Singapore, Thailand and even England, familiar faces turn up year after year at the Bayview Hotel in Batu Ferengi, come the first weekend in December. Such is the growing reputation of the PIJF that most people don't ask Augustin who's playing, as the overall quality of the music is guaranteed to be good, eclectic and entertaining.

The main stage program on Saturday and Sunday, the 1st and 2nd of December, offered a little something for everyone; traditional vocal jazz from Malaysian gal Elvira Arul and R&B from American veteran Madeline Bell contrasted with the ultra-contemporary, jazz-inflected beatbox vocal gymnastics of rising star Butterscotch. Though completely different in approach, all three women have been blessed with exceptional voices. PIJF is also pretty clued in as to what's hot in Europe, and for several years now the festival has showcased Norwegian talent. Past editions saw quartet In The Country and trio PeLbO grace the main stage and this edition continued an evidently reductionist trend by featuring the piano/saxophone duo Albatrosh. Solo Norwegian artists should apply now for PIJF 2013.

For fans of contemporary jazz piano, Korean Francesca Han's and Italian Kekko Fornarelli's trios gave strikingly contrasting, yet equally absorbing performances. There was a touch of novelty and plenty of virtuosity in multiple hang-drum player Rafael Sotomayor's ensemble TheArtOfFusion, but when it came to solo virtuosity, none could match the peerless guitarist Martin Taylor' set, nestled in the middle of the program on Sunday.

A bit of roots 'n' rock from incendiary Irish trio The Deans got the crowd's adrenaline pumping and made everybody forget about the soft-yet-relentless rain. The Deans may have been a left-field departure from jazz, but as Augustin said: "You've got to keep the customers satisfied." Penang is not New York, and the audience, whilst extremely open to musical adventure, is here for a good time. If the North Sea Jazz Festival can accommodate Tom Jones and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival can present Bruce Springsteen—for the same reasons---then who's going to get worked up about an electrifying Irish rock 'n' roots trio lighting up the PIJF?

The Estudiantina Ensemble closed the festival in a celebration of the melting-pot rhythms of Cuba, a reminder to the more overzealous jazz purists who preach from their all-seated municipal theater concerts, that jazz—if there ever was such a thing as a pure form—began as dance music.

PIJF represents the most visible sign of a growing arts scene in Penang. The month-long George Town Festival—held in the UNESCO World Heritage town that's home to Indian, Chinese and Malays living in colorful juxtaposition—promotes local talent as well as international acts. Then there's the 2nd George Town Literary Festival and the newcomer, the 10-day In-Between Arts Festival. If the arts are helping to put Penang on the map as a culturally vibrant holiday destination, and bringing plenty of tourist dollars into the Malaysian state, then the PIJF can take a large share of the credit for leading the way.

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